Dr. Dawg

Capital punishment

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The City of Ottawa—my home—could use a good Spring cleaning.

Not only are we blessed with one of the most uncontrolled and brutal police forces in the country, we also enjoy the ministrations of a peculiarly robotic by-law enforcement regime that panders to flakes and chronic whiners without, it seems, allowing the slightest room for sober judgment. Thankfully unarmed with Tasers, pepper-spray, truncheons and revolvers, city by-law enforcers rely instead on nibbling us to death.

Here’s how some of my municipal taxes are being spent. A florist in the upscale Glebe area has been ordered to cease and desist from scattering fresh petals in front of his store every morning (which are swept up every evening). By-law enforcement has threatened him with fines and court if he persists. Litter.

These are the same drones who wrecked a kids’ project in the same area, power-washing a four-block hopscotch game drawn by children, all 2020 rain-washable squares of it. Graffiti.

In each case some busybody called the city. In each case, not a scintilla of judgement was exercised.

This may seem mild compared to police excesses, in my city and in other parts of Canada, and of course it is. But like the odd and ostensibly trivial matters that obsessed Franz Kafka, there’s a dark side. The unchecked machinery of bureaucracy tends to stifle creativity and judgement, producing and reproducing human machines who function solely on the basis of rules and roles, and are entirely fungible. And such a bureaucracy replicates its own zombie conformity by enforcing it upon those it allegedly serves.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter what the purpose of that bureaucracy happens to be. It might range anywhere from keeping sidewalks pristine to meticulously tracking the unit costs of transporting prisoners to death camps by train. Hierarchy, command structures, clearly-defined and rigid roles into which all manner of individuals are jammed—what Max Weber thought was marvellously efficient accomplishes its aims at no inconsiderable cost.

While individual moral responsibility entails judgement, the latter is reduced or eliminated in a mass bureaucracy—but also on a vehicle assembly line, or in a meat “processing” plant. The workers are as surely processed as the commodities they produce.

A system of power and authority guarantees that individual human beings will be reduced to functioning parts of a whole that almost seems to have a life of its own. Power always requires powerlessness; authority is exercised over those who have none. That great champion of the proletariat V.I Lenin was clear: “[W]e want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and ‘foremen and accountants.’” He offered no way out, no mechanisms of transformation: Stalin was simply an extrapolation.

In Ottawa, the unchecked police force and the pettifogging by-law enforcement machinery are each a facet of the same pathology. “I think they’ve lost perspective,” says the florist of the latter. That’s not true. These assemblages possess no perspective, and neither do their moving parts.

The fundamental problem of democracy is accountability. Who speaks and acts for the people? Assuming that we can develop a conception of “the people” that isn’t an abstraction like “the silent majority,” what mechanisms are required to ensure that our “representatives” actually represent?

We on the Left have still not advanced very far in figuring any of that out. But of this we can be certain: if “another world is possible,” it won’t be realized by substituting a new machine that’s a grotesque parody of the old. That’s why, incidentally, I like the Occupy movement: a big question mark instead of a programme isn’t a bad thing.

In the meantime, Ottawans, sign a petition, email your councillor, send a letter to the newspapers, or write a blogpost like this one. That’ll teach ‘em. Oh, and sing:

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 8, 2012 10:39 AM.

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