Monday, April 02, 2012

Social organism

Sixth Estate's recent post cautioning against quick fixes to the election that simply involve compelling voter participation reminded me of something I've thought about on and off over the years.

Take Canada in context. In the history of states, we've never been safer and more affluent than we are now in this day. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Canadians have not faced a large-scale crisis of hardship since the Second World War. We've been comparatively wealthy, safe, and secure for decades. The generations raised during the war and the Great Depression are dead or dying.

It's the experience and survival of hardship that brings the reference points which allow us to understand the events and tell us when we need to involve ourselves. It breeds vigilance, and an understand of the importance of active preparation and participation, and shows us our mettle as a collective and as individuals.

Today, most of us have not known this sort of hardship. The affluence of the middle-class, grown since the end of the last big war, has produced a society where active participation is not required. We have everything we need to survive, and can spend our lives idly chasing iPhones, SUVs, and episodes of Seinfeld between office hours and Powerpoint presentations and complicated coffee. We live in little cells, have surrogated the hearth, something which required constant tending and facilitated social interaction, with a flatscreen TV which requires nothing more than button-pushing and silence. For most of us, we've always been fed and sheltered, warm and secure, living in what amount to miniature palaces full of luxury.

Almost paradoxically, this is both a condition of deep security and also of vulnerability. Unlike the war generation, we are no longer required to give up anything of ourselves to ensure our long-term survival. Unlike earlier generations going back to the caves, we are not required to participate in the collective decision making of the sort which could have deep implications for the survival of the group. We don't, for example, have to debate around the fire over whether the herds we need for food will pass to the north or south of the camp or when to plant and harvest. In the not so distant past and still today in some places, this means the difference between eating and starving.

Is it any wonder then why we can't get people to participate in election processes? We talk a lot about voter apathy and ignorance sourced in a disillusionment with the political process, but I don't think this is accurate. We don't need to participate; it isn't something we're required to understand. It's just that politics aren't immediately relevant when the hockey's on or the next Xbox appears. The connection between individuals' lives and what happens in Ottawa, Victoria, or Toronto isn't clear.

What we're seeing now I think is what happens to a liberal-democracy which has grown so affluent that participation in it is no longer a requirement, and with little cultural memory of when it was. 

If this society were an organism, it would be one with an immune system weakened by lack of pathogen exposure. Crisis, like the unprecedented theft of an election, is an invader. There are three general outcomes. The invader kills the organism. The organism defeats the invader and the immune system is strengthened. Or the organism adapts and become a permanent host to the infection.


kootcoot said...

"Today, most of us have not known this sort of hardship. The affluence of the middle-class, grown since the end of the last big war, has produced a society where active participation is not required"

Granted, this trend until more recently has led to complacency - but due to privatization, growing inequality of wealth distribution, the middle class is becoming less affluent, indeed shrinking in size as we become an elite and an underclass with less and less folks in the middle.

I remember a Canada in which the only homeless people were "hippies" or other folks traveling in summer to broaden their horizons and discover themselves! Living at No Fixed Address by choice!

Many people's affluence is burdened by debt and based on real estate that could become a liability - like when transportation/energy costs start turning the Suburbs into the new ghetto/slums. Without immigrants from Asia, Alberta and elsewhere, how would the legions of McJobber's support a Vancouver priced lifestyle? The current trends are unsustainable in so many ways.

SCMacNeil said...

Very astute post!

Holly Stick said...

Sorry, off-topic in a way, though history comes into it: McMaher's latest: