Some Thoughts on Simone Weil

Freedom from Partisan Politics

By Stephane L. Pressault

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18 October 2018

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With the upcoming municipal elections just days away, we thought it would be appropriate to write about cities and the value of local governance. At Synapcity, we believe a city is its people. Only when people begin to care about the future of their city can a city be co-created. Decisions made at the municipal level have a direct impact on the lived experiences of people living in that city. City councillors, too, run as individual citizens and are not affiliated to a larger political party. These two factors allow for a different interaction with the government than what Provincial or Federal levels can provide: cities bring so many different people together to co-create their communities.

As you probably know, municipal elections don’t have political parties. Candidates often have allies and camaraderie with one another, but no formal membership to a party. Does that free candidates from the shackles of the political will of a particular party? Are municipal candidates in a better position to represent the public interest of their constituents?

Early twentieth-century French philosopher Simone Weil wrote on the topic of political parties. In her book, On the Abolition of All Political Parties, she argued that political parties ought to be abolished because party members cannot truly represent the public interest. She writes,

“Just imagine: if a member of the party (elected member of parliament, candidate or simple activist) were to make a public commitment, ‘Whenever I shall have to examine any political or social issue, I swear I will absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.’ Such words would not be welcome. His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal.” (pp. 16-17)

Weil points out that political groups or parties require conformity to their own interests. Members, therefore, cannot simply take positions that they believe serve the public interest and justice when it goes against party principles. If we turn back to municipal governments, the absence of political parties brings about an opportunity for an even more democratic process. At the same time, some studies show that partisanship actually increases civic participation:

Party ties also mobilize people to become politically active. Just like loyalty to a sports team, attachment to a political party encourages a person to become active in the political process to support his or her side. The 2012 American National Election Studies found that turnout was 26% higher among strong partisans than among independents. (http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-72)

This would make sense, as it condenses public interest and justice into a simpler set of party principles and categorizing these principles into opposing scales: left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, etc. Voter turnout is much lower in municipal elections than provincial and federal elections. Could this be in part due to the absence of political parties?

What if we were to take Simone Weil very seriously and consider the next municipal elections and Term of Council as a testing ground for a healthy CityMaking culture? What kind of mindsets should people and their councillors have to promote such a culture? Simon Weil speaks at length on public interest and justice, yet she never explicitly defines it in her work. If she were to define these, perhaps she would be falling into the same trap that she attempted to criticize. If public interest and justice are defined according to one person, one political perspective, or one party, they cease to represent the public but rather the interests of that person, political perspective or party. For Weil, political engagement is not about imposing an idea of public interest and justice, but rather serving public interest and justice. She offers us a glimpse of the kind of mindset that would encourage such service. She writes,

“Truth is all the thoughts that surge in the mind of a thinking creature whose unique, total, exclusive desire is for the truth.”(p.21)

For Weil, the elected official who represents their constituents does not claim to have the full handle on the ‘truth’ of public interest and justice. Rather, they are continually desiring the truth, humbly questioning their own assumptions and prejudices while engaging those who think and act differently. They recognize that co-creation is the best form of governance.

On October 22nd, we invite you to take the challenge and vote in your municipal elections. Invite your councillor to serve public interest and justice. Seek out your neighbours and your fellow citizens, and learn about them. Perhaps that mindset will increase our participation in the creation of our City. Municipal elections offer us the opportunity to vote beyond affiliation. They offer us to vote for our fellow citizens who enter the political arena to serve public interest and justice. Our responsibility is to choose who will be best equipped to be of service.