Cycling through a power struggle

One of the most visible effects of COVID-19 in Brussels, where I live, has been the creation of a bunch of new cycle paths. Given that space in a very dense city is limited, these have tended to be overwhelmingly taken from areas previously designated for cars. In some cases, where there used to be three lanes of car traffic, now there are two, with a bike lane occupying the remaining space. 

This has caused a big hullabaloo. Though the number of cyclists has grown dramatically, taking advantage of the new possibilities that the infrastructure affords, not all are happy. Some are so angry as to sue the government for taking over space that is rightfully theirs, and to form pressure groups (counting in the tens of thousands of members!) to militate for the rights of drivers. Beyond the local politics that may or may not be interesting, this case is an excellent one to exemplify the way in which any transition away from carbon and consumption-based societies will create profound conflicts. 

First, what has happened? Riding on a wave of green politicians in elected office, Brussels the city has created some cycle paths. Mind you, Brussels has been and to a great extent continues to be horrible for cycling, though on paper it should be great: most trips are short, and the overall infrastructure is dense and therefore available through a myriad means of transport, including an extensive network of trams and busses. But, especially during the pandemic, people have avoided public transport and instead have looked for private means. Needless to say, there is a definite class dimension to this move, as not everyone can afford to forego the tram for their preferred means of getting around. 

The city has traditionally been dangerous for bikes and pedestrians because so much space is given to cars. In the mid-twentieth century it also suffered from the western fever of building wide highways through the middle of town, which led to urban decay and the growth of suburbia. This is typical of a lot of places in the world, and it has baked in a preference for the car, because it is one of the only means of transport that makes suburbia possible. 

Despite the urban sprawl that makes cars necessary for a number of people in and around Brussels, most trips continue to be under 5km, and many companies continue the practice of awarding their employees company cars (in order to avoid high labor taxes), complete with free fuel. This is a scandal that has somehow resisted reform, and a practice that alone accounts for tens of thousands of cars. 

On this background, you would think that elected environmentalists would have a relatively easy time making the city more livable for more people, by reducing traffic death and the collateral damage of acute air pollution generated by internal combustion engines. You would be wrong! And this is where the case of cycle paths in Brussels is instructive for the wider fight to change inherently consumptive ways of living. No matter whether we are talking about cycling, reducing emissions from power generation, shifting away from trucks to rail, flying less, and so on, there will be concerted opposition from the people that stand to lose a bit because of these changes. And to understand this opposition and its underlying motives, it is important to realize that these people are not used to losing anything, ever. 

The person leading the group for the rights of drivers in Brussels is, you guessed it, a no longer young white man from one of the most privileged neighborhoods of the city. People of his social class have driven their cars wherever they please because it was their natural right. They could drive right through neighborhoods where they would feel unsafe walking, on the way to the weekend getaway or a leisurely hike in the surrounding forest. These are the people that, in Belgium and to a great extent in the capitalist world writ large, have had the most political power, because they went to the same schools as the prime ministers, came from the same background, and continued to pass laws and regulations that would favor their direct interest in being insulated from the misery that their world also creates. These people are not used to sharing their power, let alone to losing it. Hence the disproportionate and aggressive response to loosing a handful of traffic lanes. 

This same phenomenon is visible in American climate denialism, which is peddled by the same kind of people, namely members of dominant classes that see – rightly! – in the potential ecological transition a necessary redistribution of power. The thing about consumption-based societies is that they are inherently unequal, because the consumer is designated to that role by definition, as is the worker that has to produce cheaply what the consumer must consume. It is like a grand pyramid scheme, with the profits going only to the top. In any society not based on consumption this kind of pyramid doesn’t make sense, and the result is a radical redistribution of power. It would be a mistake to underestimate just how aggressively powerful people will fight to resist this. 

It’s almost comical how disproportionate the mobilisation against modest measures seems. But this is an illusion, because what the dominant class responds to is not losing a couple of traffic lanes, but the dawn of an era where they may be required to share their resources and their privileges. This is what the cycle path represents, and it is all the more ridiculous given that, under current social arrangements, the cycle path itself is mostly used by well to do people! But it is a small step in the direction of more equitable distribution of shared resources, something that is rightly perceived as dangerous to ossified class interests. 

It is at this point unclear what the fate of cycle paths in Brussels will be. What this conflict illustrates is how class privileges will mobilize quickly and decisively to resist any chipping away of their inherited power. This will also, in time, swell the ranks of climate denialists. Again, it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate the opposition. The group of concerned Brussels drivers uses the language of democracy (they don’t mind sharing power; they mind not having been consulted!) and mobility (they are interested in mobility for all…), and therefore does not shy away from decrying the green power grab as undemocratic, unrepresentative, and an exaggerated ploy based on suspect ideas (like the scientific consensus on the necessity to change our mode of life). This will continue through any measure that attempts to fundamentally change existing power structures. 

There is deep cynicism in forming driver’s rights groups in support of democracy and mobility for all. It is not even the case that all people supporting the rights of drivers, in the Brussels case, are from the same background: allies are also found among people that have been raised on the hope of achieving class status, even though they may not currently have it. Drivers mobilizing for democracy and accessibility is similar to Republicans mobilizing for freedom while restricting the right to vote. But the point is that this kind of cynicism is widespread. Climate denialism, for example, may have been started by industry lobby and corruption, but it is no longer relegated to just that. It is now a tool for protecting class privileges much more widely, and has therefore grown despite how untenable it may seem to an also growing number of people. It is hard, under these circumstances, to envision a non-combative way froward. I mean, if cycle paths (a fraction of a drop in the ocean of what’s needed!) cause such a stir, we’re in for a long fight. 

If the above is somewhat correct, then whoever is dedicated to an ecological transition should abandon the idea that somehow, because it would serve more people (or because it appears to you as ‘obviously right’), the world of tomorrow has direct appeal and therefore can convince most to get on board. This will not happen, precisely because a more equitable world is one where nobody has the right to step on other people’s toes, where nobody can hog resources as a matter of right, where nobody can exercise power arbitrarily and display their superiority. That world will be resisted tooth and nail. There is no possibility, today, of creating broad consensus coalitions for its realization. That world must be won. 

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