Friday, November 18, 2005

Constituency Offices and the State

In the last month or so I have been involved in several political actions focused on the constituency offices of Members of Parliament or Members of Provincial Parliament and I have therefore been thinking about their role in the overall structure of the state. It's nothing very novel, I suppose, but I've been thinking about the ways in which they are set up not to respond to the needs of constituents but to frustrate them -- some kinds of needs, anyway. They are a mechanism of dealing with the kinds of urgent anger that oppression inevitably creates sooner or later by taking advantage of a disjuncture between two groups' knowledge/experience of the world, those who work in the office and those who are being harmed in some way by the state. Neither group is very powerful or important, but the former obviously has more power than the latter. This can lead to constituents going away further alienated, and therefore less of a danger to the state, or it can result in a small, local conflict that can be managed by the police while the broader machinery of the state goes chugging merrily and uncaringly along. Or, perhaps, it can be used as one approach in a broader movement.

The first reality is that of those who work in constituency offices. Whatever they believe personally, the structure of their work is presmised on the liberal-democratic mythology of the state (though I'd imagine, like most middle-class Canadians, most such workers actually semi-believe some version of it, albeit with a heavy dose of the cynicism that tends to come with seeing it from the inside). Under this mythology, politics is supposedly as a largely rational exercise -- debate is encouraged, even vigorous debate; free speech within the bounds of civility is cherished; an exchange of views, proposal and counter proposal, with the most convincing going forward is the basic mechanism.

One's relationship to a political question is treated as having a view or an opinion. This view can and should be shared, which is seen as the highest form of political participation other than voting. Constituency office workers function, at least partly, as receptors for this kind of sharing, this kind of political participation. They feed this information into the machinery of the state through the Member for whom they work, and (so runs the mythology) the magic of democracy turns that into an outcome that may not be ideal but which is the best possible outcome for all. If the MP/MPP is not doing this translation effectively, supposedly they will not be elected next time. As well, when the inevitable minor hiccoughs arise in the functioning of the state bureaucracy, constituency office workers can help smooth things out.

The reality of consitutency office workers is largely confined to the "opinion intake" stage of this process. Because of this limited role, it is fairly easy for people in that position to maintain denial about the fact that, as this input is passed up -- and it often really is, I'd imagine, because of the value to political parties of having accurate knowledge of what the politically interested portion of the electorate is saying -- it becomes merely one factor among many, and in fact on many issues is far from the most important factor. These other factors include political donations, the privileged access to major political figures by elites, the commonalities of worldview and subject position among political elites and those higher in the pyramids of privilege/oppression in general, the power to shape public opinion held by a highly concentrated media structured around private tyrannies (i.e. corporations), the structure of the state itself and its organic connections to the economy, pressure from more powerful states, and the ultimate power of capital to punish any government that strays too far out of line by simply not investing in the jurisdiction in question. But because each of those inputs into the process is not directly visible to the everyday experience of the constituency office workers, it is possible for them to functionally deny their existence or treat their existence as yet another "opinion" out there in the liberal pluralist smorgasboard of options.

As long as liberal-democratic mythology remains unpierced in the minds or at least the practices of the general public and of the constituency office workers, then certain consequences and expectations follow. It follows that since difference of opinion is the central difference and rational debate is the only acceptable approach to dealing with differences of opinion, basic rules of bourgeouis civility must therefore apply -- be polite, speak or write in moderate tones, don't use strong language, and understand that your opinion is one among many and that the magic of the liberal-democratic state will sort out which to respond to. It follows that once opinions have been shared by constituents, they are expected to shut up and go away, and perhaps write another letter next year and/or vote in another several.

The contrasting experience varies, but tends to have certain characteristics. In these situations, rather than being the abstract and undifferentiated citizen of liberal-democratic mythology, citizens are flesh-and-blood whole people who have very real and very urgent claims against the state. Say your husband is scheduled to be deported to a country in which he is likely to be tortured or even killed, without even due process leading to some sort of criminal conviction preceding the deportation from Canada. Say you are forced to depend on the state to have money to feed your children but the state refuses to provide you with enough money to do so, and is in the process of making it harder to do so. These are the two issues around which my recent actions at MP/MPP offices have revolved. To people in these situations, the state is doing things that very directly and obviously hurt them. It isn't just some abstract debate about policy: It's a matter of life and death, of enhanced wellbeing or of greater suffering. Not only that, but it usually quite obvious to those being harmed directly by the state in this way whose interests are being served by this harm. Obviously people in this position are going to be angry, perhaps even in despair.

Constituency offices can often handle minor hassles experienced by constituents with the civil service bureaucracy. Constituency offices can smoothly deal with opinion and positions delivered in ways consistent with myths of liberal pluralism.

But when you have the realities of people being directly and urgently harmed by the state, and political action based in that standpoint, and you juxtapose it with the reality of constituency office workers, things don't mix well. It is awful for the constituents, who rightfully experience the expectations for civility and patience as outrageous. It is probably not all that pleasant for the constituency office workers either -- at most, they might actually be challenged to think about what their boss and the institution that employs all of them (the state) is actually doing, and at the very least they have to deal with some unpleasantness and disruption in their routine.

The thing is, constituents really only have two choices in this kind of situation: You can behave as if you accept the liberal-democratic mythology which governs the functioning of the constituency office, and return unsatisfied to your own hunger or pending loss of loved one, or you can refuse to accept it. If you choose the latter, the constituency office workers can then call the police, and the armed agents of the state can then enforce standards of behaviour that are premised on liberal-democratic mythology. And the state is happy because the conflict that inevitably comes from a stratified society has been limited to a fairly peripheral piece of its apparatus, and the core functionings have continued.

Not that actions which focus on the constituency office are a bad idea -- it can prove a valuable site for powerfully symbolic political drama, and it can interfere in the functioning of that piece of the state in a minor but still practical way. The actions I have attended have been useful parts of larger campaigns, and I've been glad to have been a part of them.

The thing is, we need to use these as object lessons to publicize not only the specific issues but to illustrate the wrong-headedness of the basic liberal-democratic assumptions which govern the functioning and rhetorical place of the constituency office. Constituency offices, despite being our local political interface with the state, are set up in such a way as to make it impossible for those within them to respond in any useful way to very real and very urgent human suffering. It's not about bad people working there, it's about a state that tolerates and even depends on human suffering, and is very reluctant to incorporate into its core functioning mechanisms to actually prevent it in the two examples cited and in many others.

No comments: