I'm Canadian. Growing up here has given me some pretty peculiar cultural touchstones. One of those is an occasionally brilliant, mostly mediocre, sometimes seriously annoying popular sitcom – shot in Rouleau, Saskatchewan, don’t you know! – called Corner Gas.
One of the running gags in the show was when Oscar, a crusty old retiree with too much time and resentment on his hands, would complain to Davis, one of the two police officers in the town, about anything to do with any government service.
“Oscar, I’m a police officer. I don’t have any control over library policy.”
Oscar would improvise some sputtering justification for her rage, and then shout, “My taxes pay your salary!”
On the show, Oscar was usually a kind of town fool. When the show would tell us to laugh in a situation with Oscar, it was usually at the old man’s expense. But in his heart, Oscar was a radical democrat.
I've been ranting over the last couple of weeks about the concepts of radical democracy – much of it to do with reading Jacques Rancière, but also the ideas more broadly. The concept has a lot of dimensions to it, as all good philosophical concepts do, different ways to understand it and apply it.
A very important dimension of radical democracy has to do with what kinds of attitudes we should take toward our institutions. As I’ve been saying in the “Hating Democracy” series, just because you have democratic institutions like regular elections, representative government, and a free press, it doesn’t mean your society is actually democratic or free.
There has to be an attitude among the population that isn’t satisfied with their government and their elected leaders just because they’re basically following the rules as the institutions set them down.
But isn’t that asking too much? Considering how rarely even democratic institutions end up legitimated and stably built around the world, wouldn’t it be enough just to live in a democratically-governed state? Should we just sit back and accept that our government isn’t going to lock us in prison and our prime minister will occasionally take his shirt off in public for viral social media posts?
Now, what the hell kind of democracy is that? This is the point Rancière has made in Hatred for Democracy. The foundation of a democratic society isn’t the institutions – it’s the constant demand that our leaders know their place in society.
That place is as our servants. My taxes do pay their salaries. Our parliamentary officials are 338 people (and 105 senators, and several many thousands of government employees) who have 36 million bosses.
That’s a weird way to think about governance. The word governance doesn’t even fit the concept, because it implies that the bureaucrats who run government institutions control the activities of the millions of governed people.
|Thank you Oscar, for reminding us what freedom really is.
Now, that’s how our governments actually run. And we need our governments to run this way to provide the services we demand from our public servants – States need public health and population information to know where to build infrastructure and provide health and welfare services.
They have this power as part of a compromise – the people demand that their governments provide services to make everyone’s lives better. The government needs to impose on people to raise the money and manage the services, and the people accept that.
But people have to constantly be on our governments’ and our leaders’ asses to make sure they live up to their end of the bargain.
When this century started, I don’t think I would have been down with this. I would have thought that democratic institutions were all we needed to be a free society. When I first heard about Rancière’s ideas, I thought they didn’t make sense. You can’t institutionalize rage.
The naïveté and blindness of youth.
The spirit of revolt isn’t meant to be institutionalized. Governments are institutions. Freedom is the spirit that keeps the government – and its members and leaders – from thinking it’s in charge.