Known Issue, Critical Defect

Cultural democracy problems, cultural solutions?

In software language, a known issue is a problem or defect with software that exists but doesn’t take the whole system down/isn’t ‘that bad’ so it goes unfixed. It’s like a wooden floor that gives you splinters now and again but you live with it rather than fix it because it’s not critical to fix. This is not the best example but it’s a pandemic and my brain is broken and so is yours so let’s keep going here.

I don’t know what to call the multi-pronged hell of today but it’s been a long time coming and many have lived in it for a long time already. Let’s call it a concurrent crisis moment. In this moment, there is one particular issue that keeps rearing its head when I try to focus my efforts on anything. It’s a critical defect that is marauding as a known issue. It relates to calls about ‘building back’ better or differently (prefer differently) and recovery and green new deals and so on. It’s the tendency — a cultural tendency, a western one — to look at things through one frame above all others. To create hierarchy and binaries. Supremacy of solutions.

One case of this that I’m acutely aware of is the use of the economics frame as the supreme frame to organize thinking for how our society evolves from here on out. Let me share a few examples. The reason I’m stuck on this problem and the ways of thinking it encourages is because it diminishes power we have in our democracies to address what we are facing. And perhaps it’s hubris of the moment, but it truly does not feel like we have time to make this mistake. Again.

First, let’s look at this recent piece from science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. “A Climate Plan for a World in Flames.” And yes, I realize this was published in the FT, but let’s continue. He was great to acknowledge the problem of thinking there is some green economy solution that will resolve everything, as he wrote: “don’t think that the market will do all this by itself, because it won’t. That whole notion of rule by market was a catastrophic example of monocausotaxophilia, “the love of single causes that explain everything”, Ernst Pöppel’s joke neologism for a tendency very common in all of us. This weakness in our thinking, the futile hope for a reliable algorithm, or a monarch, needs to be resisted at all times but especially when constructing a global economy.”

But for the fact that he acknowledged this problem, he does little to expand on anything else, and ended by suggesting it was time for more Keynesian thinking. The question I keep asking myself is, is he supposed to? Or is that our job? And I’m leaning to thinking it’s our job to learn how to reject the binaries we are presented in so much of our politics, and begin to be in charge of bringing more of these disparate pieces together in our public and popular discourse.

I see what he describes as a conservative plan. And a pragmatic one. Which we need in a spectrum of conversation. But this plan seems to struggle to imagine people leaning hard into our rights and capacities and morals and ethics to refuse bad behaviour in our shared systems. This plan seems to necessitate the creation of an immensely complex next iteration of financialization. He speaks of money as a technology, but what of democracy as a technology?

As readers and people, it feels vital to figure out how to take this thinking as one suggested piece of an approach rather than seeing an economics-centric plan as the overarching way to go about these next decades. It’s not to say that economics — and economic justice — aren’t super important, but it’s how to get there. Sometimes the stoppage of bad behaviour is simply that, one that doesn’t need a market incentive but rather a legal or social end. What is the piecing together of tactics required to use mass public power to create ramps out of this moment, ones that tie into our formal politics to pull on our power in ways that go beyond the representative policy-making that has been such a failure. Figuring out how to make this work as something we can implement through our existing careers and lives, our professional institutions and organizations. This is practical coordinated work that has to consider latent power going unused in this moment, some of which requires a renewed focus on civic education and rights and obligations. It might help to think about it as creating the culture for democratic renewal.

Let’s take another example. I was revisiting some of Lawrence Lessig’s work recently, specifically his pathetic dot theory, which posits that the thing we are trying to regulate is a dot (the dot could be any given topic — say, smoking) at the center of four ways of doing so: law, norms, markets, architecture. In a talk he gave in 2011, he was explaining how policy-makers and many others looking at technology regulation misunderstood the main point of his model. The point isn’t to figure out how to make any one of the modes of regulation supreme, but to figure out how to best achieve the goal with the four quadrants. If I can take some liberty with his thinking to bring it to 2021 much of the same problem is alive and well right now.

My read is that Lessig (and so many of us) overdoes law and under-considers norms — read: culture. We have a western cultural problem with binaries and siloes and supremacy. This has been a known issue for a long long time, there is absolutely nothing novel about the point.

When I say known issue, I think about a book I’ve recently re-read — Voltaire’s Bastards, by John Ralston Saul. A main point he makes in his book is that our society has for a very long time overdone it on “rational” thinking — or reason — at the cost of including other kinds of ways of making decisions in our political arenas. In a 2001 interview about his book, he describes the other modes that we’ve let slip and fall away — “…common sense, creativity, ethics, intuition, and memory.” Building a world around economics is born of overdoing it on reason — we then buttress that reason with more professionalized reason of many genres, and professionals with no incentive to change things. The other five modes of thinking and doing can’t break through, though they have so much to offer and hold so much power.

Many have made points similar to this before and after, though the depth of Saul’s exploration of the topic and set of examples is well worth the read. But to tie these other five approaches to something else of interest in tech circles, here’s an observation by Hannah Arendt via L.M. Sacasas’ newsletter.

“ In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt explained how common sense had once been understood not as banal notions that were commonly held, but as the work of all of our senses working in tandem to perceive a world held in common with others. “Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” she wrote, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.”

She also warned that “a noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world,” and, thus, the seedbed of totalitarianism.”

I think a number of us can feel the ongoing slippage of this type of common sense — shared experience — and this is part of the messy free speech issues debate about the internet and various platforms. And common sense is just one of the five proposed realms (to run with Saul’s suggestion) of our social ways of being together that is diminished right now, in some ways because of how it’s changing.

This is not nostalgia for newspaper times because that construct of that common sense was and still is laden with structural racism. It does, however, call into question what a reasonably-sized unit of common sense experience might look like. Which, as a persistent theme in both matters of land and accountability, might point us back to the local. The physical places in which we reside as primary places for political action and increased power.

A final couple of examples and a question/provocation that I’m putting to myself as often as I can. Maybe the provocation first — for anyone that operates politically in a realm of professionalization, can we consider it a burden of significant import to persistently raise the work and approaches of those adjacent and parallel to ours? Can we make it a norm to build the connective tissue we need between ideas rather than constantly layering on more strength and self-replicating references within the siloed muscles we have? This means creating more patience and understanding for those that speak and move across disciplines — this must be done with care, but not be so laden with fear to overcome that fear of a misstep makes it impossible. This is an abstract notion, so let me try it with another economics lens as a primary example.

This recent piece from David Moscrop about not leaving the future to the markets had me thinking about the economist Mariana Mazzucato, as did a recent reference to “moonshots” in the Liberal party’s election platform. And the issue here is the nuance and plurality we need to consider in our political choices from here on in. Again, this is not to say that there is not some element of a green new deal or green economy or cleantech that isn’t part of the transition plan — there most certainly is. But it’s only one piece of several. Would it be possible for those that work in these fields also acknowledge other options and approaches to some of our problems? How to talk about LandBack — and its notion of value — if one is going to work on climate policy in economic recovery terms for Canada? Can one imagine a larger number of professionals, knowledgeable about each, able to talk about both concurrently? The ways these conversations are fractured has me constantly going back to the error of ever splitting political science and economics from each other in how we’ve learned them, first as students and continually as readers and residents.

We undermine our power when we leave future plans to a set of professional elites to reorganize the same deck they’ve been unsuccessfully shuffling for the last forty years. They do it now using comforting and co-opted language that we struggle to reclaim — green, clean, safety, etc.

We have direct regulatory power. We have human rights frameworks. Namely, the rights we have as people that are unrelated to the economy. Here, for the nth time, I’ll recommend Undoing the Demos, by Wendy Brown. There is something troubling in this moment where suggesting we enact democratic rights unrelated to economic standing is not viewed as a primary trajectory for political action.

Democratic renewal involves expanding our cultural understanding of our power to grow it beyond policy and platforms. To get a better handle on how to bring the law to bear in many cases, including against the state if need be. To figure out how to reframe the way we have organized our politics into splintered bits and pieces and inaccessible uninviting realms. While there is little incentive in the academe for generalists rather than specialists, we can imagine that those who can move in-between fields, whether as facilitators or otherwise, could bring more of this discourse into being. This is long work. One small approach that I’ve been using is to try and understand the ways that technology can be a help in these efforts, rather than the hindrance its binary nature often creates.

It’s a basic thesis that I have found in a range of political books and talks over the years, from Unsettling Canada to Silent Spring to Ursula Franklin’s Massey Lectures. That the political involvement of the general public — rather than reliance on experts — is a critical part of shifting course. And as we see increasing interest in ideas of more open and participatory democracy, we should make more of a formal effort to constantly consider if and how we can bring this work into any specialized work we do.

The reason I ask the question about deferring to others, and bringing the broad public into any conversation we may have, is because this is a cultural shift that all of can be part of. It’s not a law or a policy, it’s a norm about listening and learning and teaching and inclusion that we can continue to grow. Some professionals do this exceedingly well already, but they are rare, and they are often not incentivized to do so, but do so from a place of values. Few of us are. So this invitation to incessantly point to other parts of the solutions and movements — this is a cultural practice many of us can consider in our daily work. Figuring out how to work across professions and communities. This suggestion doesn’t have the power or punch of language about laws and regulations, nor does it have so clearcut a community to receive it. But within any of our communities, this interpersonal work and the work to develop language for exchange and facilitation of pluralism in our democracies, this seems to be a big part of the next era.

To close, there was an excellent example of how hard it is to bring this thinking about culture into mainstream political discourse. In the recent English leaders’ debate for the Canadian election, the leader of the Green Party, Annamie Paul, was responding to a question by describing the cultural shift that needs to occur in Ottawa for a change in our politics. I can’t remember the moderator of the moment, but she would not let Paul bring this idea and all its importance to bear. She interrupted her and pushed her for a policy answer. It was a remarkable exchange in that it highlighted a leader that could see this problem, and a context that sought to make it seem a non-answer, to talk about culture. Again, the known issue being buried when it is indeed the critical flaw. Anyone that watched that debate has to know the impossible task of using such an asinine event to ask more people to get involved in our democracy.

And finally, as we consider ways to bring more and more of the general public into different modes of political influence, we cannot shy from conversations of enfranchisement. Democracy that invites more mass involvement without understanding how it may accelerate existing structural problems with race is not going to get us there. I’m bleeding into a topic that warrants more space and thought so I’ll stop there and ask again to consider how you might be able to culturally respond to this long-festering problem in your daily work? If even just talking about it more together is a tiny step, let’s do that too.

“Binary Kite (POVRay)” by Syntopia is licensed under CC BY 2.0