If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
(Julian Assange, 2007)
We’re into the time of year when the year’s-best lists come out and we all engage in acts of reflection on the past year and preparation for the coming year in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t really think that I’m rested and distanced enough to have anything useful to say about the reflection part — except to say that the last month and a half of 2010 was a pretty riotous time, what with our community radio station suddenly kicking it up about twenty-three notches of activity. As I have told a few people, in the four years and a bit since we arrived in Powell River I have not seen such an outpouring of positive energy and creativity. I think that CJMP FM is going to be a game-changer for the region, and 2011 will be the year when we get to see what that might mean. If you’re in the region and have always harboured thoughts of being involved with community radio, check out the website and find a way to be part of this effort.
But that’s getting us into preparation for the coming year. What does 2011 hold in store? I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator, but it feels as though 2011 will see even more failures among the institutions which make up the world we think we live in. 2010 saw the Deepwater Horizon spill, massive bank fraud, Wikileaks’ revelations shedding light on dark corners of the world of diplomacy and war, and a hundred other occasions to feel unhappy about having to continue relying on huge unaccountable opaque organizations with hidden agendas.
It takes a long time for faith to wear away. But we seem to be in the early stages of a widespread crisis of faith in all of these institutions. Fewer people affiliate themselves with the traditional political parties; fewer people vote; fewer people believe that government can — or even cares to — solve the problems they face. Closer to home, the gap between the public will and the intentions of our municipal government appears to grow wider and wider; we’ll have a chance to see how wide that gap is when we come to the municipal election in November 2011.
But it’s dangerous for people to lose faith in traditional authority without having something else to switch their allegiance to. This really worries me. People with nothing to believe in and governments and other authorities with no mandate to serve the population are a deadly combination. Once you get to that point you get irrational and dangerous populist movements contending with the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power in the service of insane and obsolete ends. We can expect useful solutions from neither faction, only a hardening of their positions.
Meanwhile, prices will continue to rise and jobs will become scarcer. Social programs will dwindle and disappear (in the name of austerity) while corporate profits will continue to be skimmed for the benefit of those needing the least. Eventually, when there is nothing left to rob the government will declare a new golden age of personal responsibility. And we’ll be on our own.
I wish I had more reason to think that the irrationalism sweeping through society will burn itself out before things become desperate. But I think that this gigantic machine is just going to shake itself into pieces and there’s very little we can do to stop it. It’s simply too enormous and our points of access into it are tiny and closing fast. Closing our eyes and refusing to make sensible preparations are no longer acceptable. Personal responsibility might be being thrust upon us once again, after a few decades of glorious irresponsibility. This will be a tough transition, but I really see many reasons for optimism out there (and I hope that this blog conveys a sense of that, despite the occasional dips into the gloom).
I don’t believe that the collapse of major institutions means that the world will come to an end. The weakening of extremist anti-democratic corporate power is nothing to mourn. We should welcome an increase in skepticism and the creation of citizen-led organizations, collectives, cooperatives, tribes, and freewheeling gangs of troublemakers (the good kind). We need to seize the commons back from those who stole and plundered them, so that we can create our own institutions that serve human ends — as we define them in our territory, for our wants and needs, in the service of regenerating the natural world which is the only source of wealth.
Which is all well and good, if a bit grandiose. What to do? Where do we start? What could we do in the next year which would get us closer to a sane world close to home?
Obviously, I don’t have answers to questions this profound. (Although if you do, dear reader, feel free to put them in the comments to this post.) My only real answer is that — if we believe that nothing short of a full-on systemic overhaul is going to do the trick — we need to begin by opening up spaces where collective action will flourish.
Last week at the monthly Kale Force potluck, Ron Berezan talked about Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cubans accomplished with a high degree of social solidarity and minimal physical infrastructure, we will need to accomplish with a low degree of social solidarity and huge amounts of physical infrastructure. I suspect that the Cubans got the better deal: it’s easier to improvise machinery and tools out of whatever comes to hand than it is to create strong social networks of mutual support and compassion out of a deliberately stupefied and disaffiliated population.
We need to shift from excessive and wasteful private ownership and control of land, tools, vehicles, and other resources to social arrangements reposing on trust and mutual obligation that allow us to share and work together more efficiently. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but until now the systems that favour privatization and individual action have been extremely strong and supported by legal, social, and cultural underpinnings which are only now weakening under attack by internal stresses which can no longer be kept under control: resource depletion, notably the end of cheap petrochemicals; an economy founded on greed and ignorance of natural limits on human action; and the devastation of the natural world.
We who live along this short stretch of the endless coastline of a huge landmass, who find ourselves here because of accidents of geography and history, face impending challenges which are fundamentally the same as many other local populations: how to live within the limits of what the earth, water, and air provide; how to govern ourselves so that these resources are divided equitably; how to work, play, and celebrate together to reduce needless suffering and increase happiness as much as mortal life will allow. To pitch things at such a high level is to make consensus seem deceptively simple; after all, who would not agree that these goals are important ones? The problem comes in moving from extremely vague motherhood statements to the bricks-and-mortar implementation. And here we hit some snags. In the next post I want to talk about one of these roadblocks; namely, what happens when we conceive of consensus as a state rather than a process. I’ll argue that there is a kind of fetishization of consensus that is actually blocking progress and will suggest a way we can unblock our efforts to generate more creative action.