One of the problems of being an aging activist is feeling that I may have been wrong in my political assumptions and no longer able to muster the anger, energy and hope to push for the change my new insights lead me to.
I am particularly disappointed in myself for not having the energy to actively challenge the view that any positive social change—such as new affordable housing or public transit or preserving and expanding urban industrial facilities—is subject to community consultation and possibly community veto. Those of us who remember the campaigns to stop the Spadina Expressway and preserve the older housing stock to create what became Don Area Co-operative Homes, a struggle that prompted Janice Dineen’s book Trouble with Co-ops, had a definite anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional bias. Large corporate and government structures were challenged, often successfully, in the name of local autonomy and neighbourhood control. But the unfortunate child of such efforts has been the growth in conservative rate payer associations and other local groups that oppose the types of change essential to ensure that everyone is welcome locally, that there is a real effort to eliminate the domination of individual car ownership, that we process and manufacture as close as possible the goods and materials we actually use.
Under the banner of local control and consultation we have opposition to shelters and affordable housing given real legitimacy. We encourage the hypocrisy of meat eaters not wanting to see the consequences of eating meat by moving abattoirs out of the urban core. We hide rendering plants so that we don’t know what contributes to makeup, soap and other household products. We want electricity but don’t want transmission lines in our neighbourhoods. We want to exclude certain people from our neighbourhoods and we want to have a consequence avoiding lifestyle.
Alternative forms of social organisation too often mimic those of the dominant society—either structurally or in terms of objectives. In trying to create a social order based on existing neighbourhoods and relationships, pushing for an alternative to large structures that excluded vast numbers of voices, we have produced local associations that become inward-looking, exclusionary and rigid in approach. Participatory democracy has too often lead to the creation of communities as zones of exclusion, places where consultation is assumed to mean veto and diversity refers to the people who are already in the neighbourhood.