The Three Pamphleteers

Addressing the unconcerned and the unaware

Decline is relative. It took Edward Gibbon 3,180 pages in six volumes of my small-print Everyman edition to describe the Roman Empire’s slow and inevitable collapse over nearly one and a half millennia. Andrew Potter manages to dispatch our current screwed-up society in a mere 128. Because a short attention span is one of the most damnable characteristics of our particular decline — the simple answer: blame social media — we should be both grateful and unsurprised that Potter can take us down so rapidly. Granted, he doesn’t have nearly so many heresies and barbarian incursions to itemize as he traces our increasing inability and unwillingness to live up to the Enlightenment values that formed the basis of the now diminished idea of progress. It helps that we’ve essentially become our own barbarians — no need to point fingers elsewhere. And where there are no longer acknowledged collective truths or authorities, what used to be demonized as heresy has become hard to distinguish from just another stupid, self-­serving rant on Twitter — the great equalizer.

If you happen to be an optimist or an idealist or Steven Pinker — a sunny-­ways kind of person in spite of everything — or just someone who’s been around the block a few times and seen it all, you won’t necessarily buy Potter’s thesis that this year (like last year, like next year) is the worst year ever. Say what you will about cancel culture, it doesn’t usually entail the slaughter of thousands because of some ambiguously defined term. The denunciation of political and institutional opponents is mostly rhetorical these days, in contrast to the fractious, appalling world Gibbon delighted in deploring, and that should make us think twice about turning bad days into worst years.

And that’s fine with Potter. Yes, decline is relative, and our bad is more than bad enough compared with who we used to be or could have been. Just because we’re not going downhill on the same slope as our Roman predecessors doesn’t mean we’re not squandering all the advantages we’ve been given at an accelerated rate. In a world where the lights still turn on dependably, where there’s food in the markets and health care available for the asking, we can be lulled into thinking that everything’s not so bad, whatever the crazies get up to. The momentary fit of depression that comes from daily doom-­scrolling is more of an entertainment or distraction than it is an all-­encompassing world view: a few cat videos and all’s well again, more or less.

To break through this numbed complacency, the polemicist in Potter has to take an extreme view of our omnipresent decay, and so On Decline (like On Property and On Risk, two of its companion volumes in Biblioasis’s Field Notes series) is designed as a short sharp shock in the pamphleteering tradition. Committed overstatement, with a certain relaxing of academic rigour and cool-prof pop culture references in its place, becomes the best way to provoke a response from the unconcerned and the unaware.

Is anyone listening? Potter, who teaches public policy at McGill University, recognizes the challenges that come from launching a small-press jeremiad into a universe fixated on nightly Netflix options. Being a savvy worst-year nostalgist, he opens his book with the death of David Bowie in 2016, an acknowledgement that it takes a dead musician to make a celebrity-­besotted, self-­involved culture recognize that “the old, familiar world was being replaced by something new and uncertain.” There’s nothing like the sudden psychological shock of a beloved performer’s passing to help connect the dots between the ambient chaos of terror attacks, rising temperatures, Brexit bluster, and the machinations of Donald Trump.

Famous people have been dying for a long time, though; this is not an especially new or revealing phenomenon. Perhaps there are more of them now because we increasingly inhabit a vapid world of illusion (thank you, Plato) and let entertainment replace activity. Or maybe the world has always had a shallow, fun, vicarious-­thrill side. Regardless, our wired culture is more caught up in the constant commemoration and reliving of good times gone by. Social media definitely has a powerful nostalgic streak, and it’s become too easy to reclaim all those lost decades, old flames, and forgotten bands. Up close, it seems like a temporary pleasure. Standing back, as Potter does, it looks more like structural rot.

The essence of slow and relentless decline, whether of the Roman Empire or whatever we (or they) end up calling the past fifty years or so in the West (per Potter’s dating), is that at any given time it may be imperceptible or unfelt, particularly for those who are insulated by wealth or status or indifference. Potter doesn’t expect his audience to notice or even care about the slow ravages of economic stagnation in everyday life, as people (other people, of course) exhaust the gains of the Industrial Revolution, or lose trust in democracy, or embrace anti-­liberal sentiments on both the left and the right, or revive anti-­scientific belief systems that should have been sent packing centuries ago. We may be experiencing climate change, but we feel only inclement weather.

The aim of a short, argumentative, and enjoyably discursive book like On Decline is to turn those disconnected feelings into a more substantial, more engaged, and indeed more dissatisfied world view. As widely as Potter ranges — our technology-­abetted descent into tribalism, the inability of privately rational individuals to unite for the collective good, the lethargic response of the leadership class to the pandemic, the rise of populism as a betrayal of Enlightenment values, people choosing to have children or not — his sharpest analysis of contemporary decline is not moral or cultural or intellectual but economic. The openness, tolerance, personal autonomy, and belief in science that were espoused by post-­religion Enlightenment thinkers, coupled with the technological efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution, speedier communication, cheap land (not least through colonization), cheap labour (from urbanization, the end of peasantry), and cheap energy (through the mechanized exploitation of natural resources) — all combined over time to generate our growth-­based understanding of progress. Invention and discovery were the norm for 200 years. Liberal democracies emerged and prospered. Life expectancies surged. Cheap, labour-­saving consumer goods became accessible to all. (This is a partisan polemic, don’t forget: please ignore the world wars, the Great Depression, the bloody hist­ory of colonialism, the numbing effects of materialism, environmental ­depredations, et cetera.)

And then, Potter argues, it all started falling apart. Since the 1970s, technology has given us a few more gadgets to play with, most of which we’ve diverted from discovery and invention to unproductive time-­passing: the ability to communicate instantly allows stupidity and animosity to travel at warp speed, with a net decrease in the sum of human happiness. It’s a good time to be a neo-­Luddite moralizer, but Potter prefers to confront the problem of decline as practical and often institutional (and therefore easier to solve), rather than human, which is the despairing pessimist’s usual soft target.

So when Potter analyzes modern decline at the economic level, he quickly slips from areas of broad general concern like crumbling infrastructure or wage stagnation among middle- and low-­income earners to more debatable issues like worsening traffic congestion. Are the superhighways and land-­grabbing suburbanization of the postwar boom years the only way out, or can we make our cities better in much broader terms by redefining the traffic problem and reining in the automobile, ceding priority to pedestrians and cyclists and trees? The Industrial Age nostalgist in Potter wouldn’t go for such a low-tech, undynamic solution, which lacks the kind of daring and ingenuity his model of growth is built on. He can’t quite bring himself to argue for flying cars, being a sane pundit, but because his economic model for arresting decline requires constant innovation and dislocation, his enemies list includes many of the usual suspects derided by spoiled techie ­disrupters: bureaucrats, regulators, environmentalists, counterculture Luddites, those mean people who know only how to block new ideas and prevent progress.

Fortunately for Potter, On Decline is a very short (and lively and readable) book, so he doesn’t actually have to do the hard work and explain why, in the name of freedom and progress, government regulators and the rest of us need to get out of the pipeline builders’ way or give nuclear power plants and space travellers another chance to prove their potential without small-­minded interference. But what’s decline for some people may be just right for others — especially when the benefits of the economic progress model, even without the added bonus of celebrity rocket ships, are so one-­sided.

Seeing decline all around him, with the years worsening in rapid succession and the half-­empty glass ever depleting, Potter can’t bring himself to sustain his illusory futuristic hopes. We won’t get those pipelines, trains will remain slow, robots won’t fulfill our hopes and needs the way kids do, VIPs will still have to traipse across death’s red carpet. A disastrous “Big Event” might bring people back together as a community, but we’ve had that chance with the pandemic and seem to have failed, even as unfettered scientific inventiveness has dependably delivered its life-­saving version of progress. The biggest problem: too many of our self-­centred fellow beings in the West are so consumed by status that they no longer think twice about survival. Societies under constant threat, Potter contends, are the best positioned to work together and act collectively, simply because they have no choice. To gain a better future, we must learn to fear, to be ever vigilant, and to recover our liberal ideals by uniting against an authoritarian adversary (China, anyone?). We have to realize, finally, that a shared feeling of constant insecurity is what it will take to bring us all back together. And that, believe it or not, is what a more hopeful future looks like.

While Potter’s book comes from the argumentative strain of pamphleteering, Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property belongs much more to the impassioned, pleading, sermonizing tradition — not surprisingly since, like the crusading abolitionists of old, he is demanding freedom for Black people with an emotionally charged voice that is at once shaming and defiant. The title is misleading to anyone not familiar with the modern academic concept of abolition politics, which sets out to annihilate every institution that oppresses minorities, marginalized groups, and the underclass generally. Slavery is still with us, goes the analysis, and the process that began with the first abolitionists will not end until all systems of plantation-­era domination are destroyed and the slave’s dreams of freedom are finally made real.

Anyone expecting a modern rendering of Proudhon’s “Property is theft!” argument, with all the varieties of anarchist hairsplitting that have worn down so many well-­meaning radicals, will leave disappointed. Yes, Walcott renounces the idea of individual property and calls for collective ownership, and he envisions the paradise to come when “property would not be owned but would be used to advance the well-­being of all life forms — human and otherwise.” But that small portion of his pamphlet seems tacked on and impossibly dreamy. The more committed chapters of On Property take the enticingly broad title and narrow it down into a passionate demand to defund the police, the prisons, and indeed the entire judicial system.

That’s a highly reductive approach to the concept of property, which is bound to leave out many timely societal concerns about the ­principle of ownership in favour of single-­minded, issue-­based campaigning. But what’s the point of a pamphlet if not to irritate and provoke and engage, to bring forward new and even unwelcome ideas that challenge a flawed orthodoxy, to make the unthinking among us think twice?

So far, so good with On Property. Criminal justice in North America needs a complete overhaul, and the defunding movement that has gained traction through Black Lives Matter represents one of the first successful challenges to the entrenched power of policing bodies and the timid politicians who support them. But Walcott, who directs the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, is not in the business of winning over the unenlightened. He’s much more comfortable asserting his cause — over and over again and with far too much evidence drawn from the vastly different hist­ory and experience of the United States — than developing compelling real-­world arguments to sway not just privileged skeptics but idealists who want to believe.

Walcott’s campaign against injustice and for modern slave rebellions deliberately gives no ground. Hiring more police officers of colour will make no difference. Teachers and social workers who watch over Black people are just police under a more benign name. Looting is a good thing, a form of resistance against subjugation (this will give useful ammunition to right-wing opponents of Black Lives Matter, who like to insist that lawful protests and thefts of high-end electronics are inextricably bound). Even the baggy pants weirdly preferred by Black teenagers, supposedly modelled on the enforced couture choice of beltless prisoners and denounced by no less a mainstream Black icon than Barack Obama, become a symbol of freedom and a defiant statement of bodily autonomy in the face of the fascist fashion police. As Voltaire didn’t quite say, “I disapprove of what you wear, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it — just don’t force me to look at your butt crack.”

A poll that shows that Black people are opposed to abolishing the police? They have been misled, says Walcott, and fail to realize there is a better way to deal with neighbourhood violence and conflict than an armed response. Community-­led transformative justice programs are the answer. That sounds promising, and because the model is familiar in Indigenous legal circles, it becomes easier to rationalize in other contexts. But is it perhaps much simpler to imagine and devise alternative forms of justice and authority for tradition-­based, hierarchical Indigenous communities, rooted in generations of legal studies, than it is for a dispersed Black population from widely different backgrounds with disparate needs and expectations? Who gets to decide what’s right and wrong, fair and unfair, property and theft?

Walcott believes modern policing is designed to be a subsidy for property owners, and the designation of property-­related offences such as break and enter, vehicle theft, arson, shoplifting, and vandalism as crimes unfairly ­targets people of colour. Prison systems, which confine a disproportionate number of Black people, shouldn’t be used to punish these acts, which are the consequence of poverty. Instead, he argues, we could and should eradicate such crimes by caring more for the least fortunate and most vulnerable, while righting historical wrongs and injustices. In effect, we should simply work out the details while showing more compassion to the car thief and offering reparations to the looter.

Put another way, it’s the police, not the so‑called criminals, who make us feel first insecure about imagined threats and then safe in their hands — safe, that is, as long as we’re not Black. But On Property falters by making it too hard to envision how utopian unpoliced communities would begin to deal with sexual assault, violent crime, robbery, and murder without some concern that the bad guys, whoever they are, would regain the upper hand. Shifting to a system of community accountability seems impossibly naive when we find it so hard to agree on who constitutes the community and what their shared values are. Yes, police violence can’t be ignored, and force is too often deployed where help is required, particularly when responding to those with mental illness. But the perceived need for policing can’t be wished away simply by trusting in an abolitionist’s sleight of hand — no capitalism, poof, no more property crime! — and then vaguely and hopefully pining for new ways of coexisting.

Achieving a better world, in either Walcott’s version or Potter’s, means abandoning what we’re used to and heading off into the measureless unknown, the hazardous journey to possibility that Mark Kingwell navigates with his trademark calm omniscience in On Risk. The University of Toronto philosophy professor is an imperfect pamphleteer when judged against Orwell’s narrow definition: “To have something you want to say now, to as many people as possible.” But the appeal of Kingwell’s writing, and of his thinking, is that he has so many things to say on any given subject, not all of them of the moment, not all of them for the crowd, not all of them, for that matter, on topic.

The passionate urgency and partisan positioning required of the traditional pamphleteer don’t fit Kingwell’s bemused, detached liberal sensibility. Although On Risk ends with a well-­argued plea for more equitable treatment of the unfortunate — people who’ve had no say in the lifelong risks they’ve been forced to assume, those who lost the birthright lottery — large parts read more like a chatty, entertaining podcast where good-for-you philosophy esoterica and meditations on the etymology of terms are seamlessly, painlessly blended with Homer Simpson references and happy memories of wild-child risk-taking on a distant Manitoba air-force base.

Kingwell always has a point, and the fact that he takes a while to get there is part of his meandering charm. Perhaps he doesn’t need to disparage Vanna White quite so dismissively, however, just to prove that he, like his flattered audience, is more comfortable in the world of Machiavelli, Hamlet soliloquies, Tolstoy-­based New Yorker parodies, and quotes from memorable blues numbers. (Or not so memorable: Kingwell rewrites the key line in Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign” to make him sound more like a fussy philosopher.)

But to get to Kingwell’s point: that his day-long forays across wide-open, parentless fields in the company of danger-­courting friends inoculated his uncocooned generation against the myriad fears and anxieties that he now encounters in so many of his university-­age ­students. Early experiments in risk taking — which, he admits, weren’t even perceived as risky by either the roaming children or the blissfully neglectful moms and dads — better prepared him and his ilk to assess the deadly diseases and disasters to come and presumably gave him that Kingwellian aura of above-­it-all knowingness.

There’s a scale of risk, and the word must be endlessly modified and recalibrated to suit every new and uncomfortable situation. For a popular professor (albeit one old enough to realize that teaching in COVID-­era classrooms filled with rule-­flouting youth is a risky proposition), it’s a bold step to go from ­modest self-­congratulation to chiding his sensitive pupils about their miscalculation of safety and aggression. “University is, whatever else it is, a privileged environment set off from the actual mortal risks of making your way in the world,” he writes, while acknowledging how much he sounds like Jordan Peterson. “Risk is always, and always must be, about perspective — and we humans are not so great at recognizing that, or calculating its effects.”

That is the overarching theme of On Risk, and for all his pop culture digressions and occasional moments of realization that he’s a professional philosopher and ought to name-drop modal realism or decision theory, Kingwell covers the consequential aspects of daily risk without descending to a formulaic Idiot’s Guide kind of benign handbookism. He’s especially energetic at calling out rich people who get the idea of risk so wrong and who mistake the mere luck of their birth for a superior sense of resiliency. Risk is always political, even when it seems random and fixed. And that is where it can and should be managed, Kingwell believes. His strategy for equalizing risk, by transferring wealth to the less fortunate via higher taxes, for example, or improving disaster compensation funds, or ending bailouts for corporations at the expense of shareholders, may well rebalance the totality of human fairness. But as a means of improving people’s capacity for assessing future risk, it’s much less convincing. Risk can never be eliminated, but neither can it be neatly managed by well-­meaning bureaucracies, even if they follow the Kingwell risk-­reduction road map completely. There are those of us who gladly, even irrationally, pursue risk and chase its sporadic rewards at any cost. But there are also wise people like Kingwell who are better humans — and clearer thinkers — for experiencing it without knowing any better.