Democracy and the Politics of Salvage

Working from a point of acknowledged wreckage and the hope inherent

Today a phrase came across my Twitter feed from an article describing recent events in Hong Kong “…as long as our hearts still hurt I think Hong Kong can be salvaged”. This was before the events in DC. Two more noises to add to the constant background hum of dread, a hum that has increased while living through the confirmation of complete institutional dysfunction in Canada. The pandemic. Background is accurate for how I’m living through this, it’s not in my foreground because I’m safe and I’m safe because others are not.

If you’ve seen the movie Gone Girl, you might remember the way the industrial sounding hum would rise and fall. I should watch it again to see if it’s as strong as I remember. That sound is the closest thing I can find to capture the dread I’ve felt over the last few years, words still can’t do it right.

During these years I’ve used the word democracy often, knowing it was frequently more confusing than clarifying. One of the problems with the word democracy is the normative goodness that many try to push onto it, wrap it up in. Or the way it invites conversations and entire academic economies that elide white supremacy and capitalism. But despite its many shortcomings, I drag it around with me because I’m still unprepared to yield the argument that it’s not a potentially powerful force to mitigate both, and build out beyond them. It, through some of us, has created institutions that are decrepit, hollowed out, structurally devoid of justice. It has also, through some of us, created institutional capacity worth salvaging.

The politics of salvage may be an apt description for this moment we’re in. It starts with a baseline admission that things are broken and destroyed and in trouble, whether by design, negligence, malice or any other number of causes. The politics of salvage reject the “this isn’t us” narrative, a core message of the clip of Eddie S. Glaude Jr. that will hopefully make the rounds again. The politics of salvage reflect on the vital conversation between Dionne Brand and Rinaldo Walcott that describes the manufacture of Canada’s perpetual innocence, always surprised and awakening anew to racism and white supremacy, as though it’s not the basis of the shaky sovereignty this country stands on. A politics of salvage offers a starting point of acknowledgement of this wreckage as shorthand, not only to describe it but to be instructive about what to do. To find what can be salvaged and reorganize it to our needs. Actively. As praxis.

Democracy is not to be confused with incessant consultation and conversation and process as though we don’t know what public institutions are supposed to be doing. Given the way democracy has been morphing and shape-shifting since the deep knocks of neoliberalism started four decades ago, it’s easy to understand how we got here — for a harrowing stare into this mirror, read Undoing the Demos by Wendy Brown (thanks David Murakami Wood for the recommendation). Public expectations are low in part because so many of us don’t even know how the government operates, politicians know they can get away with utter and thorough failure. We aren’t teaching ourselves how to use our democracy differently. The fragility of democracy that many are speaking of is brittleness. We are swimming in the endless capacity for obfuscation, knowing how wrong it all is but unable to name it properly. Federalism. Privatization. Lack of public policy planning that would enable accountability. The confirmation that tens of thousands of public servants can’t be organized in a manner to better manage the crisis we are in because it’s all come so far apart is grim.

A strand of hope is our creative capacity to salvage. There is much in our wreckage and our history and our public service and ourselves to reassemble differently.

PS: An influencing piece and a good read on salvage and capitalism is The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, thank you Rumman Chowdhury for the recommendation.

photo credits to “Julien Belli” (for the original shot) and to “Carlos ZGZ” (for the adaptation)