Saturday, July 23, 2016

PLEASE, Canadians: Don't share pieces on the US election

I want to make a simple request to everyone in Canada who thinks of themselves as in some sense or another part of the left. I don't actually suppose that anyone will listen -- after all, who am I to ask such a thing? -- but I will ask nonetheless. And my request is this: I want all of us to commit, for the period between right now and November 9, not to write, publish, or share anything to do with the elections in the United States.

The basis for making this appeal is a bit different than some readers might assume, so I'm going to start off by talking about what my reasons are not. Then, I'll explain what they actually are.

What I don't mean

The first thing this request is not is an expression of left nationalism. It's not based in smug Canadian we're-better-ness. It's not based in a commitment to reinforcing borders as naturalized demarcations of belonging and action. I hope that if I have demonstrated anything over the last 20 years of writing and making media and otherwise acting in the world, it is a distaste for Canadian nationalism, left or otherwise, so even if this request seems superficially to be in line with such a position, it really comes from rather a different set of political commitments.

This request is also not an assertion that the elections in the US don't have an impact on us; they most certainly do. They always and inevitably do, given...what's the quote from Trudeau Senior about being a mouse on the back of an elephant? Anyway, you get the idea. I also have the sense that there are some dynamics specific to this election. There are lots of people who know more than me about electoral politics and about the right in Canada, so I may be wrong about this, but here's my take: The electoral right, federally and at least in Alberta and in a different way in Ontario, is in a bit of disarray at the moment. However, the grassroots right-wing social movement that brought the Harper Conservatives to power -- and my thanks to a Hamilton anarchist for first introducing me to the idea of right-wing electoral success in Canada as resulting from a highly organized grassroots base -- is still around. It has never been as strong as its counterpart in the US, and the more terrifying and openly white nationalist elements within it have not generally had as much influence as they do south of the border right now, or at least not since the Second World War. But the grassroots right in Canada is still stronger now than it was in the second half of the twentieth century. The electoral disarray is not due to grassroots decomposition, and that means that once the specifics of electoral circumstance that have resulted in that disarray have passed, they will have no trouble rebuilding to challenge once more for state power. There are no doubt lots of factors determining what kind of electoral expression that resurgence will find, and what sort of flavour within the right-wing coalition comes to dominate, but I suspect that one factor is the fate of the openly white nationalist, misogynist, xenophobic Trump campaign south of the border. If he wins, that element of the right in Canada will be energized...even more than they have already been by him winning the Republican nomination. So, yes, the election down there matters up here.

And finally, it's not an expression of rad left puritanical anti-electoralism. I wrote years ago about my take on electoral politics. I continue to combine both a sharp critique of the limitations and dangers of electoral and other uncritically state-focused politics with a strong commitment to pragmatism. Electoral politics can make only very narrow and specific kinds of changes to people's everyday lives (particularly in the absence of powerful extra-parliamentary movements), but those changes can still mean a lot in terms of people's experiences of violence and suffering and access to the resources they need to live. Given that, why not invest half an hour every four years to have a tiny role in shaping that? And I'm at least open to discussing more collective left interventions in elections as well, though my skepticism increases sharply in relation to the resources and attention required, and how that might either detract from or contribute to movements. In any case, I don't see voting as an expression of existential self, as avid proponents and die-hard opponents of voting both so often make it out to be, but as a small tactical intervention. Spending a lunch hour on someone else's picket line isn't going to end capitalism either, but it similarly can't hurt and might help a tiny bit. In a way, I see voting as a sort of harm reduction measure. All of which is to say, I welcome ongoing conversation about how best to relate to elections and to state-focused politics, and I'm not taking the position at the heart of this post out of any sort of conviction that paying attention to elections is uniformly Bad.

What I do mean

So why do I wish that Canadians (and perhaps all non-USians) would stop posting and tweeting and sharing and opining about the elections in the United States?

Well, there are a couple of pieces to that. One key element is that even though the elections affect us, even though I'm not turning my nose up just because it's an election, and even though I don't think looking and feeling and thinking across borders is an intrinsic problem, we can't actually shape the outcome. We can't vote. We can't donate. We can't knock on doors. We can't phone bank. We can't do any of the other things that might make a difference to who wins. All we can do is watch the spectacle in horror and talk about it. Which isn't, on its own, necessarily a problem -- I'm all for posting and chatting about all sorts of things purely for the sake of knowledge or entertainment or edification or debate.

Until, that is, you think a bit more about what exactly the spectacle does.

So. I think our efforts to change the world, considered in their entirety, must begin from people's lived experiences and then proceed through efforts to understand how and why people's lived experiences got that way as we seek ways to make change that gets to the roots of problems. While there will inevitably be small steps and hard decisions and compromises on the way to get there, our overall vision has to encompass the entirety of the problem. Reducing poverty a little bit is a positive step, for instance, but the endgame has to be transforming the social relations that produce poverty. Any individual campaign may only win, say, a modest increase in welfare rates, a handful of concrete changes to reduce racist police violence, a single pipeline stopped, but those campaigns have to happen in the context of overall political visions of a world without poverty, a world without white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex, a world in which Indigenous sovereignties are respected and planet-destroying carbon-based capitalist industries are transformed. We can't make good decisions within movements and communities-in-struggle about the steps along the way if we don't hold on to the big picture.

One of the most pernicious impacts of electoral politics is the way that they get inside us and shape our imaginations of the future, of what's possible, of the world that we want. The range of things that can be changed through purely electoral means is narrow, and the degree to which they can be changed is usually small. Like I said, that still matters, because people's lives and wellbeing are at stake. But because of the incredible amount of resources invested in electoral politics, because of the huge amount of space they are given in the mainstream media, because of the massive legitimacy with which they are treated in mainstream discourse, and because of the power of the spectacle that results, this narrow spectrum of issues and narrow range of possibilities exerts tremendous power over people's political imaginations -- over our sense of what's important, what's possible, what's desireable, what we can and should do. Many people have had hardly any opportunity at all to imagine anything outside the narrow range of the electoral spectacle, and even those of us who try to act with a more expansive movement-based vision in mind still cannot help but be shaped by it.

Now, it's one thing to navigate that when it's an electoral contest where you live, that will have an impact on your life and your community, and that you can, at least in a small way, intervene in (or deliberately not). How do you intervene? Where do you put your energies? What non-electoral things should movements be doing too/instead? How do you recognize the real-life consequences of electoral politics while still fending off the dangerous impacts that the spectacle has on our sense of overall political possibility? It's all difficult and a mess, but it's an unavoidable one because it's not a matter of "false consciousness" but of a hard-to-navigate material situation.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. In this case, no matter what we know or discuss or decide, we are not going to have any influence on the outcome. For those of us not in the United States, as relevant as this election is to our lives too, all we have is the spectacle. All we have is the way that the spectacle shapes us.

And make no mistake, it does shape us. I don't know about you, but I find myself reading and thinking and talking about this election. Even though I know full well that it hasn't magically appeared from nowhere and is the product of a long history, I am finding myself emotionally shaken by it. It is under my skin, and it is taking my attention and my energy -- taking them, that is, from things that I could actually do something about, taking them from a kind of engagement with the world that is, yes, interested for the sake of interest at times but dynamically related to interest for the sake of acting, and instead focusing them on a political car accident that I can do nothing to change but can't look away from.

In the world of 21st century social media, there is a kind of active economy of socially organized attention and affect that is very different from back in the day when daily newspapers delivered to every door were the prime mechanism of creating publics and the public sphere. Now, our knowledge systems are produced much more through our unapid labour of clicking, sharing, liking, tweeting, +1ing, and so on. The democratizing potential of this more active role is greatly overestimated in some quarters, I think, but it still means we have some potential to shape at least our own and our local spheres (bubbles?) of content. That is, we have at least a little bit more control than a generation ago over how we relate to and reproduce that element of electoral politics that is the spectacle that deforms our collective political imaginations.

So I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not saying don't pay attention to and don't care about Trump vs. Clinton. I'm not saying don't read articles if you feel like reading them. I'm just suggesting that it might be a politically useful discipline not to share them, to opine on them online, to circulate them. I've been doing my best to do that, and even just at the individual level, it helps to interrupt the circuit a bit -- to get into the habit of thinking, no, I'm not going to pass that along, I'm going to stay attentive to things that are more directly connected to things that I and that the various wes that I'm a part of can actually do something about. And, like I said at the beginning, I don't expect this call to resonate, because after all who am I to make it. As well, I know how empty it can be to call for individuals to change what amounts to a consumer behaviour, when it is systems and institutions and social organization that are really to blame.

Nonetheless, wouldn't it be great if every time some lefty in Canada thought about sharing an article on how horrible and authoritarian and racist Trump is or how awful and neoliberal and imperialist Clinton is, they just stopped and shared something about...well, maybe about how awful the Canadian state is and Canadian corporations are. Or, even better, what if instead we focused on sharing material about movements and communities-in-struggle on Turtle Island (both north and south of the border) that are already taking action every day to challenge and change all of these things.


David Heap said...

Nice point, Scott, and I agree in general that it is a good self-discipline to concentrate on issues where we can have an impact. As a footnote, however, I know some Canadians who actually have done phone-bank volunteering for U.S. presidential candidates: this was for Obama 2008, and anglophone people in MontrĂ©al were "volunteers" calling from Vermont… I can only assume the possibility (technically) still exists. But it is surely a negligible phenomenon, then as now. So your broader point holds: UNLESS you are going to e.g. volunteer to call south of the border, try to avoid sharing pieces on the U.S. election.

Scott Neigh said...

Interesting...I would've assumed that wasn't legal! But, as you say, it's probably a pretty marginal phenomenon...

Anyway, glad you found the piece useful! :)