Politics in two dimensions (and beyond)

By David Parkinson

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Recent events have made me more conscious of how our political system works. It came to me not long ago that the way we talk about politics is very one-dimensional and that there are other dimensions we should be trying to hold in mind as we think about where we are and what lies ahead.

We often think of large-scale politics in terms of left and right. To strip away a lot of rhetoric and vast amounts of detail, the left-right dimension is a continuum along which we battle over the division of the spoils: left means using the power of the state to redistribute wealth and create social programs and a safety net for the less fortunate; right means allowing the individual to decide how to use her or his wealth free from heavy-handed interference by the state.

The real world is obviously much more complex than this simple picture; for example, the right no longer pushes for a minimal state but instead uses state power to redistribute wealth away from the public sector and the commons and towards those who are already wealthy. The last few years have seen a giddy and fast-paced smash-and-grab operation by and on behalf of the economic élite, with the clear intention of destroying the state’s ability to provide a baseline of social services to all. This program seems to be reaching a sort of culmination with the recent project of using the common wealth of the population to ‘bail out’ the élite. When the dust settles from this amazing one-time-only offer — and as we start to face the consequences of spending our capital and destroying the resource base on which all wealth is built — political battles over the allocation of our dwindling wealth will become increasingly desperate.

What’s left of the left meanwhile fights a series of rear-guard battles in a losing war to reserve some share of the common wealth for the poor and less fortunate. As the screws tighten, as the lifeboat shrinks, these battles are only going to become more desperate. Who has the ear of governments? Not the poor.

And all of this wealth, the spoils of reckless capitalism, that we fight over — it’s based on the idea that there are no limits on our ability to continue pulling minerals and fossil fuels from the earth’s crust and food from our fields. Once you have a population which believes that we can keep on creating false wealth forever, then you end up with a political system which is really little more than a stock market. Or a Ponzi scheme.

So rather than a one-dimensional political system which turns every decision into a question of who gets the money, we need to start looking at some of the other less visible dimensions of how we make decisions about how to create, store, and (re-)distribute wealth. Until we start doing that, the language we use for talking about the economy is not rich enough to capture what is really going on. Like a poorly-ground lens, this impoverished language distorts the world around us, accentuating some aspects and diminishing others. We owe it to ourselves to get our heads out of the phony and constricting box of left-vs-right and start thinking about all of the factors that shape the way we interact with one another as individuals, with other groups of people, and with our society as a whole.

It’s important to remember that politics is not just about the ballot box and the talking heads on the television machine. Politics is present whenever people wrangle over who gets what. It’s in the boardroom, the bedroom, around the dinner table, in the meetings we attend, the way we choose to use our time and energy and money. I have seen, lately, a few examples of how bad politics can poison well-meaning non-profit enterprises. Even with the best intentions, if decisions are made in an undemocratic fashion, or if information is not freely shared, or if one person or a small group takes control for their own personal benefit, then the group’s solidarity will suffer.

I believe that we are entering a period in which the community is going to have to step up more and more. I am very uncertain about the prospects for the economy, and if I’m right to be worried then there will be less money flowing around for capital-based solutions to the problems we face. Likewise, we are already seeing sweeping cuts to social spending programs, especially at the provincial level. Many of the social support programs for low-income folks and other less powerful constituencies are going to disappear over the next few years, leaving a huge burden on local communities to find workarounds and patches. How this is going to play out against a backdrop of an extremely disaffected and slothful populace is anyone’s guess; but it’s going to be a rough transition at first. To the extent that we can employ a politics of decency, the rough ride will be less horrible for those of us at the bottom. To the extent that we continue to approach every problem as though it’s just a niche for some new corporate venture, we will blunder and fail.

I want to throw around a few dimensions along which it’s useful to think about how we approach the problems we hope to solve. I’d like to return to these and some others in the future, and spend some time elaborating them. For now, it’s only a skeletal outline of how I believe we should be talking and thinking about the work of renewing and reinventing our communities. Much of this points outward to existing theory and practice, but for now I’m just putting up hasty signposts.

(I’m using the word ‘venture’ below because it allows me not to choose among ‘business’ and ‘non-profit’ and ‘project’ and so on.)

Public vs. private

How is the public involved? As shareholders? Spectators? Make-believe beneficiaries of fraudulent trickle-down effects? Do members of the public have any say in how this venture is run? Phony consultation? Do we have to wait a few years to vote it out? Are we the hapless victims of decisions made in a boardroom to which we were not invited?

Open vs. closed

Similar to the previous dimension, but more about how the real decision-making happens. Even in a supposedly public venture, there are many ways to marginalize members of the community. Cliquishness, secrecy, and any number of needless hurdles can be put in place to keep power concentrated in the hands of the ‘right people’. Are we telling the truth? Is everyone able to ask tough questions without being shouted down or shunned? Are we actively encouraging more public involvement?

Intrusive vs. free

Can people opt out of the venture or its effects on them or their community? Must they be constantly alert to potential damage, pollution, or other ill effects? Are people coerced into either participation or resistance? Are people allowed to opt out, but at the risk of falling behind in some important way? Does this venture create more choice? Or less?

Community vs. individual

Is this venture about satisfying individual needs or wants? Is it about providing some resilience at the community level? Is it doing one when it should be doing the other? How does it strengthen community or reinforce individualism? Are we overlooking some way we can use this venture to create or strengthen community?

Paid vs. free

This is a really important and largely invisible dimension.This society trains us to see everything through a money-coloured filter. When we look through a red filter, we can no longer really see red, because everything and nothing is coloured red. Money is the same way. We do not even see the extent to which we create ventures which are born addicted to the money economy. Could we have done it  otherwise? Who is excluded? Who is advantaged? Have we asked ourselves how far we could have got without taking that first hit of corporate sponsorship?

That’s enough for now. As I say, I’ll try to come back to these and try to have something more illuminating to say about them. I do feel that those of us who want to work on making our communities more resilient need to spend as much time interrogating our methods as we spend considering our goals. It is possible to have admirable goals but undermine their success by hitching them to working methods which enshrine the very things we pretend to be getting away from. It’s maddening and all too common.

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2 Responses to “Politics in two dimensions (and beyond)”

  1. 1 misterscience October 1, 2009 at 19:03

    Unfortunately, our current political structure is profoundly averse to the kind of disruption inherent in the new dimensions you propose.

    As well, the “extremely disaffected and slothful populace,” — addicted to media and dollar-store consumption — has a terrifying inertia of its own. The inhabitants of the urban sprawl around North American cities in particular will continue to think they have it pretty good (and by most measures, they’re right) without a pretty radical shock.

    So: can you propose any strategies that will bring even the possibility of considering additional dimensions to the Lineland of Canadian politics? I despair of even seeing someone on a ballot above the municipal level who is not fundamentally corrupted by the requirements of office-seeking.

    No pressure :-)


  2. 2 David Parkinson October 2, 2009 at 07:54

    Hey T.,

    I’m pretty well convinced that no fundamental change will come on its own. I also believe that the only hope for making real change — as slim as that chance might be — is through direct personal engagement on the most local level possible. The politics of the anonymous masses is corrupt and was ever so. And I’m much more personally interested in creating facts on the ground than going straight to local policy (the usual first refuge of the over-educated). So I’d rather work directly on small-scale lo-tech solutions to looming problems, like community gardens or car-share co-ops or whatnot, than on propping up the pretense that we can lobby our way out of resource depletion, species die-off, catastrophic climate volatility, and the generalized failure of the social institutions which have reached the end of their legitimacy. That’s like trying to patch a scrap of rubber back into an airtight tire.

    So I’m dodging your question, kinda. Hope that’s OK.

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