On the Limits of Elections and Convivial Alternatives

Elections and one in which I voted

Election night.  An election to trump all other modern elections. What a night! Eerily like the “Election Night” skit on SNL, I found myself writhing with the notion of a clown leading us plebians for the next—at least 4 years!—into an abyss.

The worst part? Until Tuesday night, polls showed Clinton with a comfortable lead.  Day after day, refresh after refresh, Nate Silver and his celebrated “Five Thirty-Eight” consoled us with a consistent Clinton advantage narrative.

Then there was the media echo chamber—from both camps—reminded us the “stakes are high.”

The Brookings Institution called it “the most important election since 1932“, citing danger to healthcare, social security, the court system, and the environment.  And the truth is: duck-billed Donnie’s presidential win endangers all of these programs and existential concerns (i.e., climate change).

These are indeed distressing and uncertain times.

But we can be certain about one thing: how little control we have over our own lives.  We can almost feel freedom slipping through our grasp, laughing at the whimsically dated concept of personal responsibility. 

Consider the “working class” people NPR reporters spoke to in Goshen, Indiana.  A man named Randy Leinback spoke for many in his small town when he called upon our President-elect to fast-track more pipeline, fund more fracking, and “expand on offshore oil drilling and keeping the oil flowing to keep the gas prices low.”

By the looks of things, Leinback and his cohort need low gas prices to sell RVs. They depend on government to ease up on regulations related to RVs and rely on the oil and RV industries to bolster Goshen Indiana’s part in the decimation of our biosphere.

Farther north in Flint, Michigan, people living there subsist on government-provided bottled water.  Keep in mind that this is 2 years after the city switched its water supply from Detroit’s treated water to its own polluted river.  By now we know the tune.  City administrators failed to prevent lead from leaching into the new water source.  And even after realizing the problem, they obfuscated its severity for months.

The only recourse people in Goshen, Indiana, and Flint, Michigan have in determining their well-being is through the casting of their vote in elections. These people can no more choose the course of their lives than can prisoners choose their sentencing.

The grand irony in this stripping of autonomy involves the fact that in neither case, do people demand liberty from the paternal whim of government or industry. Instead, they demand more services and better programs.

Like most of us, they become bears who’ve grown too comfortable with park visitors’ scattering of picnic scraps.   They have lost—and are denied—their innate ability to care for self and neighbor.

***

After election night, so-called pundits and analysts painted for us a picture of “angry white men“, a “rust belt uprising“, and “voter suppression.”

And each of these analyses lends some truth to our understanding of what happened that fateful night.  Yes, it’s likely some white males were angry about their situations.  Plus, others may have been feeling “left out” or “condescended” by Washington and the “urban elite.”

Yet beneath the surface of people’s ready explanations for why they voted in Trump lay unconscious desires for agency and control over their lives.  If you were a “true American”, an aspiring “rugged individual”, you too would resent having to accept social security checks and Medicare services.

And what about the 42% who didn’t vote? It’s evident voter suppression played a role in this and other elections.  But 42%? How many of these have suffocated under the weight of learned helplessness? How many have been robbed of the chance to better their situation using their own knowledge and skill only to discover that government and industry stood in the way?

Those of us who haven’t yet succumbed to helplessness most often call for better products or services rather than freedom from servitude to them.

We demand more schools instead of libraries from which we can learn according to our own motivations.  We call for widened highways instead of the ability to walk from place to place using our own power.  We expect wifi everywhere instead of common spaces in which to interact with and learn from one another.

But there’s good news! It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can forge ahead in a more satisfying direction.  A direction that distinguishes, as Ivan Illich said, “the environment as commons from the environment as resource.”  It is upon these commons that we can embark on a “great reskilling“, one that reinvigorates the natural inter-dependency among self-determined people.

This vision mostly requires supporting and broadening practices taking place in niches throughout our modern world.  

For example, a few of us know how to build structures with little more than hand tools, natural supplies, and human power.  Others of us know how to biodynamically farm.  Or to fix up bicycles.  Still others practice foraging, harvesting, storing and preserving food.  Their friends have honed the craft of cooking and baking.  Or of making music and clothing.

With these skilled folks’ guidance, we can pry open the gates of professionalism and teach each other vital skills.  To bolster this skills sharing, local governments can foster the conditions of conviviality. 

That is, governments can help set up tool libraries from which anyone could borrow implements for small-scale farming, cloth spinning, or construction.  Governments can zone land uses to accommodate bike co-ops (where people learn how to repair and maintain bikes) and community gardens (where people learn how to garden).  They can also purchase and provide housing used for communal daycare and retail space for knowledge exchanges.

The greatest kindness a government can bestow upon its diverse people would be to grant them control over their fleeting lives.

So instead of channeling our energy around “getting out the vote”, let’s ask our governments to help us lead vernacular, self-determined lifestyles.  A true empowerment of, by, and for the people.