Early on in my courtship with the man himself we still hadn’t figured out the best way to drive from Eastern Ontario to Western Massachusetts. Mapquest would have us go straight through Montreal but I, familiar with the joy of discovering great secondary roads, was sure that there would be a way to avoid the city. Meanwhile the men around me very kindly explained that no, there was no way to avoid Montreal and the question was simply at what time would one leave to avoid rush hour. I thanked them and then set about to conduct my own study of the maps and their intersections. Later, himself and meself decided that it must have been their special map-reading equipment which gave them such confidence.
As a result we now have a fast, gorgeous route between Ottawa and Amherst, overlooking the St. Lawrence Valley on one side, and the Adirondacks on the other. We fly through the countryside and end up at a ferry and always get out of the car for 15 minutes with the wind in our hair as we stretch and watch the changing seasons on the water. Then we’re off through the Lake Champlain Islands and begin the trek south through the Vermont mountains. It’s an exhilarating drive. But I digress. I actually began to write thinking of the age old question of why their special map-reading equipment invests some men with such authority.
In fact, it’s actually questions of authoritarianism and masculinity which interest me most. I am curious as to why authoritarianism can so easily sit beside liberal ideals and political pursuits. Here’s just one example from the national stage: Late last December, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty met with his counterparts in the provinces and territories. On the second day of the meeting, during a working buffet lunch, Flaherty strode into the room and handed his colleagues copies of the transfer agreements which he announced will govern health care finances once the current health accord concludes in 2014. The provincial and territorial ministers were flabbergasted and became deeply angry at the lack of consultation and discussion. Only BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan did not register their opposition to both the message and the process of the announcement. With this announcement, the federal government abdicated its role in social protection.
What sort of hierarchy of masculinised economic power is at play here? What inter-governmental inter-play of discipline and laissez-faire? I suppose it is easier to rule by fiat and free markets. It avoids the messiness of dialogue – dispenses with the necessity of interminable meetings. It puts an end to collective processes and creative thinking. It does away with uncomfortable public exercises in self-awareness and obliterates the risk of humility. Maybe it’s easier to remain girded up for conflict, map reading equipment needing a certain amount of protection and all. Nasty. Brutish.
I found my copy of Sabine’s History of Political Theory tonight to help me think a little about all this, and looked up Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that men (and he did mean to say men) were ruled by either desire or aversion and that they acted instinctively to heighten their vitality. (Seriously. Their vitality). For Hobbes, the desire for security is inseparable from the desire for power. Ongoing security cannot be attained without the pursuit of more and more power, since other men are out for the same thing. As a result, we end up with endless conflict and living lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
It’s only because of selfish reasoning that individual men agree to form society. Hobbes thought that only absolute monarchy could guarantee individual security. Men would give up their pursuit of individual power, and surrender to the power of the monarchy only in exchange for the kind of cooperation which could be enforced by threats of punishment. He didn’t really believe in society or any form of collective action. He believed that one man would speak for the many. The rest of them would have to submit, not because of loyalty, but for self-preservation. If the monarch could no longer secure individual security, individual men would simply go about looking for a new monarch.
I continue to be astounded that bullies are elected and that voters can so easily overlook the dismal character of our leaders, but unlike Hobbes, I don’t think we submit to tyrants because we are inherently selfish or that we can’t live cooperatively. I think we only look like we submit to tyrants, when in fact we are disorganized, disheartened, distracted and only minimally engaged. We’re living through a time when our sense of community and solidarity has been deeply damaged.
Tyrants, on the other hand, might feel very comfortable with Hobbes’ view of human nature and his imperialist assumptions about what living in the “state of nature” was like. Our governing misanthropes don’t care about soulfulness or society. They don’t have our loyalty and they can’t count on us for much beyond our short term of commitments. Our current Prime Minister, for example, must sit rather uneasily on his throne, and so he builds prisons, commits billions to fighter jets, integrates our society with the security and military apparatus of the U.S., and defines the national interest in “energy infrastructure”, while Aboriginal views on the building of oil and gas pipelines are ridiculed. Bullies send emissaries. Leaders know themselves well enough to be capable of inviting dialogue.
Most of us probably believe our “leaders” got there through trickery and hope somebody else will boot them out in the next election. The problem is, however, that they can do a lot of damage in the mean time, and we can’t just hope for change to happen. If we do, we will likely just end up with a new monarch. I’d rather put my trust in the transformative power of the collective and the re-birth of community in all of its meandering ways, the gentleness of every sex and the power of the many.