I was recently reading Against the Grain, by James C. Scott, in which he went deep into the history of state formation, starting with the rise of rooted agriculture, and concluded that neither were the natural way of things, much less the most desired or inevitable. The book was far from political, but even someone as liberal as I am couldn’t help but think ill thoughts about state formation. Is government really needed?
Illegal roads, cut down Joshua trees, and damaged federal property, along with the need to clean up garbage, prompted Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith to announce Tuesday that the park would close indefinitely on Thursday to address those impacts incurred during the ongoing partial government shutdown.
“There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness,” Smith replied when asked about the damage in the park. “We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening.
“Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”National Parks Traveler
The government shutdown has done terrible things to our national parks, the one shining symbol of our commitment to and belief in the common good, in a shared heritage. Starved of the resources to keep people in line, the parks have become strewn with trash and filth, littered around nature like the casual discarding of an idea.
In a way, of course, these acts are entirely nonpolitical: it is a bunch of entitled yahoos seeing something beautiful and being overwhelmed with the near-religious need to tear ass across it. And while I believe in my heart that they are the same people who think coal-rolling is a declaration of individuality and pure lib-ownership, I don’t know for sure.
But in a way, it is of course political. It gets to the heart of this country’s conflict: that between people who think the land and everything and everyone on, in, and under it should be converted to capital and made profane, and those who think that the idea of the common good is more important.
That’s tied directly to our idea of self-governance. Are we all in this together, fighting for something, with a responsibility to each other? Are we here to do the hard work? Or do we abdicate that to a ruling class?
It’s complicated, of course: the right wing/libertarian could say that having a government at all is an abdication, but that way leads to things like the national park being destroyed and our shared resources being plundered. The myth of individuality, like we saw at Malheur and with the Bundy clan, is really just a money grab by the powerful who think the government should only exist to protect and further their interests.
It’s been that way throughout our history; it wasn’t until FDR in the 30s that the government was neutral on labor fights. Before then, they threw the weight of the state at strikers, grinding up protestors in the teeth of truncheons and tear gas. And now we’re getting back to those terrible days.
That’s what the Republican Party is right now. It is a vehicle to advance the interests of the rich and powerful by destroying the state’s ability to protect the common good. (It is also a vehicle for white nationalism, but those are intertwined). The GOP hates government, and hates shared resources, and hates land that isn’t being exploited. The shutdown isn’t an accident; it is a culmination.
It’s also a reminder of why we need government, and more of a reminder that the work has to be shared. It is a reminder that we are the government, and our duties toward each other have to make us fight and compromise and struggle together toward something better. Something bigger. Something that keeps the Joshua Trees standing, against the hot winds and the slow erosion of an idea.
*(Want to note that hunter/gatherer societies weren’t ungoverned; like tribal areas in Yemen today, they had rules and regulations and an idea of shared responsibility based on reciprocal altruism. It was also based on the role of luck in life, an obvious attribution that has been Horatio Alger-ized out of America.)