Is the call for political amalgamation of CRD municipalities, at its core, motivated by toxic social impulses?
NATURE, THE SAYING GOES, ABHORS A VACUUM, as true in the social environment as in the physical world. If a society or a community retreats from one set of priorities or practices—that is, diminishes its moral, regulatory, or energetic investment—some other expression will expand and intensify its influence.
You can witness this truth at play, along with immediate disruptive consequences and worse to come, south of our border. A devastating and depressing early-February piece by New York Times columnist Charles Blow makes the point that American institutions, democratic process, and public culture will never be the same, even after Trump is gone.
Happily, hopefully, American political culture and many of its social resonances stop at the border; but more to the point, the times they are a-churning and ideological slugfests are sprouting everywhere. Ideology, as you know, is an idea of how the future should happen.
Gosh, does “everywhere” include little old “here?”
The regional amalgamation drum has been beating louder recently, which may indicate that local government and/or community itself is, in word and deed, creating a vacuum, vacating the strong case for localism, allowing it to languish and lose ground.
To be clear: when I write “amalgamation,” I am not discussing whether sewer pipes line up at municipal borders. My sole concern (and worry) is political amalgamation: one big Victoria.
In my view, this is amalgamation’s central and not-so-subtle social threat: it leads by seemingly logical and harmless increments toward a political inevitability in which citizens willingly, or at least un-protestingly, exchange the more transparent and easily understood triumphs and bloopers of local political process, the accessibility and chances of engagement, for the moonless bureaucratic night and monolithic impenetrability of regional governance. Why add more geographic abstraction to the political process? Why sacrifice precious social identity and political self-expression?
Maybe we’re sliding into undifferentiated times (I blame the Internet), and the idea of community-scale selfhood is waning. I’m posing the idea that an entire glossary of social practice, and the ideas and values behind it, is at risk of fading: community, neighbour, access, participation, engagement, locality, citizenship, mutuality and so on. We’re all becoming…the future.
In other words, regional amalgamation, putting aside its ambiguous claims of service efficiency or its glib economic promises, is loaded with hidden social semiotics, and grounded in values, not value.
Along with other forced political consolidations, amalgamation has its roots sunk in beliefs and power rituals in which a human group, invoking some higher authority (everything from Amalgamation to National Destiny to God) “solves” itself by “solving” the world (and sometimes rooting out the last nonbeliever). People look lazily to, or for, a “higher” power for justification, or solution. It seems built into our genes.
Consider our hypnotic attraction to permission and to the authoritarian potency of “Yes” and “No,” how the entitlement to invoke these words and make them law is the key to the imperial capture of the world. We say “mayor,” “premier” or “prime minister;” we mean “Your Majesty” or “Daddy” or “Mommy.” Secretly, we long to be led and completed by a stronger force; yes, it might dominate us, but it also satisfies something in us—makes ambiguity tolerable, maybe—and performs some perverse and murky release. Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, quotes Hugo von Hofmannsthal who, more than a century ago, noted: “Politics is magic. He who knows how to summon the forces from the deep, him they will follow.” All of which speaks to this caution: the border between a democracy and an autocracy (or worse) is skin thin. Just cast your eyes south.
In the same way that many physical pathologies flourish when the body system is weak, amalgamation blooms in the body politic when simple community—commonwealth—falters or fails.
Like many such -ations and -isms with hard-to-spot implications and unforeseen consequences, amalgamation can be reasonably argued; but you can’t miss the strong flashes of ideology shining through the seams. By ideology I mean weltanschauung—worldview and attitude—an idea of what people are, and of human nature and purpose.
How else to explain the repudiation of Lilliputian local government? Please, tune your ear to the critical notes embedded in words like “local,” “municipal,” “civic,” just as “rustic” suggests not “pastoral” alone, but also “clodhopper” and “yokel.”
But, now consider how in our everyday lives we occupy an almost exclusively local world whose canvas is painted with life’s minute victories, draws and defeats framed by daily routine. Are locals too…local? Is community-scale too idiomatic, too subjective, too weak? Have the times and trends gutted local scale, made it quaint, so that now we accede without resistance to larger, more authoritative and powerful structures?
Come downstairs with me to meet the Devil. Beneath the vegetative repetition and triviality of the everyday is the fortissimo: the allure and the appeal of a life vitalized by appetite, ambition, a limitless hunger for reach, self-inflation, fantasies of sexual triumph and hero-hood, a belief in shortcuts and personal exception, hallucinatory images of everything delivered (plenty without a price tag), situational morality (one’s own rules and justifications), the debasement—the dehumanization, really—of other people’s identities and needs. In that state of crescendo and self-seduction we become aristocrats crowned by our murky choices, lit by spotlights in our own hall of fame.
Power, dizzying power! But never without a risk or a price tag: the catastrophic collapse of social bonds.
Does political amalgamation, then, unwittingly embody a dangerous pathology, and should its prospects be aggressively countered? No; but be mindful of messaging that promotes the consolidation of healthy, local political publics—you—into one homogenous regional administrative populace.
If you take everything you’ve read so far to be hysterical amplification, you may have missed that there’s a dangerous, narcissistic, emotionally unstable autocrat next door in the White House, and that the Nazi swastika is back in fashion globally, courtesy of quickly rematerializing neo-nationalist/neo-fascist movements now blooming like early crocuses in various places. Poland’s new government has just produced a law prohibiting accusations of Polish participation in the Holocaust and other war crimes that took place during the German occupation of Poland. If you’re planning to change the future, the first thing you do is write out a contradictory or annoying past.
The worst mistake any of us can make right now is to see historical discontinuity growing all around and, thinking it won’t touch us, develop no mental poise and no plan.
So, here’s a cautionary thought for our postmodern era, as an ominous and angry near-future assembles the next triple-whammy: a task of local government, expressed through all of its practices and policies, is the renewal and re-expression of commonwealth—that is, the political culture of community and social connection, of shared effort and common goals. “Common” has to be constantly recalibrated, re-communicated, re-learned and re-actualized in our socially abstracted and bemused times. The slide into authoritarianism, Atlantic Monthly commentator David Frum warned recently, “is unstoppable if people retreat into private life.” In The Authoritarian Dynamic, Karen Stenner states: “democracy does not produce community, it requires community.” In our fluid age, it takes both a geographic and a social border to sustain city or community identity: a sense of shared purpose reinforced by familiar community structures and protocols, carefully managed physical change and limits on discontinuity, and a rich diet of innovative social projects—an “us,” really, not to make people tribal and defensive, but to give identity and energy to these things and help citizens resist the sickness of un-belonging.
Municipalities appear challenged to understand that there’s an absolute requirement for amenity-rich communities—locales filled with appealing physical features and social activities and opportunities that people can love and care about—if folks are going to feel engaged and connected, and behave like stakeholders, citizens.
Cities open the door to toxic social impulses and turn into characterless geographies when they lose the skills of, or forget to practice, identity—their culture and history. They unlearn or “busy away” their meaning and run out of story and moral purpose (or mistake a buoyant real estate market for meaning, purpose and validation—a guaranteed sign of cultural degeneration). They run out of Why, and they are not aided if their civic and social leadership is blind to signs, unable to read social and historical metaphor and, consequently, poorly equipped to secure the future.
In modern circumstances, any small city exists under the threat of “historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance,” to borrow economic geographer Paul Krugman’s phrase. Victoria, barely “a little bit of Olde England” or any other defining identity beyond the visitor’s “nice” or “cute” anymore, is presently a drifting place, a human geography in search of a new or updated story.
Political amalgamation, I assure you, is not a new narrative and will deliver not a renewed, heartfelt social landscape, but a chartless, implosive cultural ruin.
Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, is writing the book Futuretense: Robotics, AI and Life in a Jobless World.