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Democratic and Environmental Necessity
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"Accelerated change invokes the gyroscopic or principles of rigidity. Also, to high-speed change no adjustment is possible. We become spectators only, and must escape into understanding. This may be why the conservative has an advantage in such an age of speedy change and is frequently more radical in his suggestions and insights than the progressive who is trying to adjust. The practical progressive trying to make realistic adjustments to change exhausts himself in minor matters and has no energy to contemplate the overall." — Marshall McLuhan, 1960
It's difficult to write about democracy. At this point, it’s hard to claim there's any such thing. Thrown around by America's political class, it's pretty clear the term is close to meaningless. One remaining, unhelpful understanding of democracy, especially amongst certain segments of the population self-identified as liberals and progressives is the idea of democracy as protest. Historically, there could be nothing further from the truth, today it mostly exemplifies the degradation of democratic thought.
Political protest signals there is no democracy or at best it’s failing. Going back to democratic rule in Ancient Athens, for two-centuries there was little protest. How can their be protest when the citizenry is equally enfranchised in political decision making? If you lose a vote, you go back and work to change it. Who would you be protesting? Historically, assembled protest is a tool of the disenfranchised. The 1st Amendment’s right to assembly is the democratic expression of a newly enfranchised citizenry emerging from the tradition of militarily imposed monarchical rule, not a democratic mean.
The recent tradition of protest as democracy emerged from the 1960s cultural politics, a misinterpretation of the preceding Civil Rights Movement, where the descendants of America's slave caste successfully struggled for political enfranchisement denied to their ancestors and to themselves in the hundred years since abolition. Here protest was quite legitimate, not a political tool of democracy, but a necessity of the disenfranchised.
This was misunderstood by the following cultural movement, largely catalyzed by the societal bottom shaking of the Civil Rights Movement. It came to be believed protest was a great tool of democracy. Mostly ignored was the Civil Rights Movement truly determinative democratic organizing efforts, the greatest democratic organizational achievement in American, and it might be argued, global history. The movement’s protest marches overshadowed the democratic tilling from which they sprouted. This is especially true in the media’s coverage, which ignored the innumerable, decades long, face to face meetings in small churches and community rooms, where people were educated, organized, debated, deliberated, and made choices. This was the movement’s democratic legacy.
In his seminal I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne writes,
“One of the persistent movement criticisms of the national press corps, the very idea of a 'national press corps' grew partly out of the movement, is that the press focused on big dramatic events while neglecting the processes that led to them.”
As television destroyed and supplanted community and local political organization, gaining media attention became a main focus of most political action. Simultaneously, campaigns and elections became exclusively promoted as the only element of democracy. Lost completely was the essential understanding the real work of democracy in education, face to face organizing, and group deliberation, all necessary if a vote is to be of any value.
The great deficiencies of protest politics become glaringly apparent with environmental issues. For Americans there are no great villains in environmental politics, not the oil companies, chemical companies, or Big Ag. The instigators are everyone, the collective daily actions of each American — no one is innocent, everyone a victim. Protesting against any given large, powerful entity misses the point, a scapegoating of responsibility for the every day combined actions of hundreds of millions. Definitive solutions will only be found changing those actions.
In Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound, chained to his rock atop a cliff, Prometheus states, “Skill is weaker by far than necessity,” an excellent encapsulation of the environmental challenges humanity faces. Necessity is the food, air, water, and shelter we require to live. With industrial technology, with skill, life’s necessities were radically and in many cases detrimentally reshaped and altered. Key to any environmental politics is to refocus on necessity, how we as a species come by food, air, water, and shelter.
Wielding the power of necessity over skill, requires a revitalization of democracy, a political focus on the fundamental understanding of humanity as a social animal in which education, face to face organizing, deliberation, and action are the fundamental democratic necessities. It is here environmental solutions can be found and democracy revitalized.