Justice and the Politics of Mushrooms
In October, 1982, a group of anarchists drove a pickup truck carrying 550kg of dynamite to Toronto, where they detonated it at a component factory for American cruise missiles. The blast did not kill any evacuating workers. Ultimately, this action was a failure: the factory’s production was only delayed a week, and in January 1983 the group were arrested by the RCMP and sentenced to life in prison.1
In the forty intervening years, left activism has been surprisingly tame. Climate activists in particular believe in the supremacy of nonviolence.2 And yet—despite the exponential growth of the movement to stop climate change, for all our marches and pleas, all the times we chained ourselves to old growth trees, blockaded ports, and protested pipelines—we seem no better off than when we began.
What does it say about the value of democracy that we have been silent on the most consequential issue in human history? Are our societies in decline? Questions normally reserved for reactionaries are drawn to the fore of progressive discussion by the accelerating crises of politics in democratic nations. Björk believes she has an answer. Her new album, Fossora, is part tribute to her mother and part manifesto on the politics of mushrooms. Björk, of course, is not alone in writing about democracy in an unjust society. Here, I will examine her intervention into this literature. At the end of this article, I will answer the question everyone has always wondered: Is Fossora based?
“Atopos” is the most explicitly political track on Fossora.3 It cuts to the heart of Björk’s discussion of democracy and justice, saying “To insist on absolute justice at all times / It blocks connection.” But what does Björk mean by “justice,” and why does it block “connection?”
Naïvely, one might identify connection with democracy, saying Björk believes that there are values of democracy other than its connection to justice; and pursuing justice has diminishing returns such that there are some justices which, if pursued fully, can erode the fabric of a democratic society. This view is in contrast to a view articulated by the late political theorist Iris Marion Young, who argued that we value democracy primarily for its instrumental benefits, particularly to justice.4 What, then, are the non-instrumental values that Björk sees in democracy?
In asking this question, it immediately becomes apparent that the naïve interpretation of “Atopos” is insufficient. For one, Björk sings: “If we don’t grow outward toward love / We’ll implode inwards toward destruction.” Rather than being an endorsement of democracy’s inherent value, this seems an endorsement of Young’s position on democracy’s instrumental value. It seems, then, that Björk and Young do not have a shared conceptual language. This is underscored when Björk sings: “Our differences are irrelevant.” If Björk is concerned about blocking connection, she should know that differences do block connection. Young writes that difference is the primary generator of injustice in democratic societies. Differences in social and economic standing create further differences in political power, compounding inequalities.5 A third approach, known as egalitarian democracy, holds that such differences are the primary obstacle to meaningful democracy. Taking the principle of equal representation seriously needs a high degree of social equality.6 Under both the egalitarian view and that of Young, differences are a primary problematic for justice; and under the egalitarian view they are also an obstacle for democracy.
In order to understand Björk’s conceptual differences from the aforementioned views, it is necessary to understand her notion of “absolute justice.” Clearly, there must be a difference between “justice” and “absolute justice,” otherwise the phrase would be a pleonasm. Björk contrasts “absolute justice” with connection, love, and hope, which is “a muscle that allows us to connect.” How can justice be opposed to hope?
The answer is that “Atopos” approaches justice and democracy from the standpoint of Deweyan pragmatism. John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator, treated democracy as the paradigmatic tool collective problem-solving. The primary mechanism of democracy, for Dewey, is cooperation, or “connection.”7 For Dewey and Björk, social injustices are exactly the kind of problem democracy exists to solve, even as they may also be an obstacle to political equality.8 In this light, we should interpret Björk as arguing that while “absolute justice” may block connection, “better justice” does not. “Better justice” is the aim of pragmatic democracy, and pragmatic democrats like Dewey look to democracy as the mechanism for iteratively creating “better justice.”9 It is connection that enables us to solve social ills.
What does this view have to say about accelerating, global crises? If democracy is our supreme method of collective problem-solving, why have democracies been silent on climate change? This view responds that the crisis is exactly a lack of democracy. It isn’t always the case that democracy gets it right the first time—but it reflexively approaches a correct answer. As such, the failure is a result of a lack of accountability. Processes that would take democracies to better solutions on climate change—to better forms of justice—are blocked. Partisan gerrymandering in the United States, lobbying by oil companies, and open corruption led to unwillingness or inability to implement even preliminary solutions to be improved upon. Now, recalcitrance by wealthy nations encourages inactivity the world over. Adding more accountability would hasten moves to better solutions, not stymie them.
1 R v Belmas, 142 B.C. Ct. Appl. 642 (1986).
2 Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (London: Verso, 2021): 16.
3 The album is very long. As such, I have truncated this review to just Atopos. The other analyses are fairly trivial, for example, varieties of feminism in “Victimhood” and “Allow”
4 Iris Marion Young, Democracy and Inclusion (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000): 17
5 Ibid. p.34
6 Staffan I Lindberg, Michael Coppedge, John Gerring, and Jan Teorrel, “V-Dem: A New Way to Measure Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 25, no. 3 (2014): 161
7 Cooperation, in contrast to discursive democratic views like those of Young or Habermas, which treat speech as the sine qua non of democracy. See Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, Volume 1, trans. Thomas McCarty (Boston: Beacon, 1984), and Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985).
8 See generally John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Holt, 1927).
9 Alex Honneth, “Democracy as Reflexive Cooperation: John Dewey and the Theory of Democracy Today,” Political Theory 26, no.6 (1998): 780