Bicycling and the Simple (Socialist?) Life

by Russell Arben Fox on September 14, 2010 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

Nearly two years ago, John Buass, an intrepid fellow blogger and bike commuter (more: a genuine cycling activist) here in Wichita, shared with me an invitation he’d received to write something for a book tentatively titled “Bicycling and Philosophy.” I ended up sending in an abstract, because the notion of writing for one of these “[Blank] and Philosophy”-type volumes that I see all over the place appealed to me. As it turned out, the editors liked my proposal, asked me to turn it into an essay…and now, at long last, the book is available at your local Borders. I kind of feel bad, because I only learned about this whole project through John, yet his name is nowhere to be found in the final volume. (Let me give you my complimentary copy John, at least!)

If you absolutely can’t wait, you can read my chapter here. Not the best bit of writing I’ve ever done, I think, but not bad overall. This passage is probably the heart of my claim, which is that choosing to make a bicycle one’s primary mode of transportation (which, of course, also means organizing one’s life around, and getting involved in one’s community so as to make possible, such a choice in the first place) is, in the complex and automobile-centric societies in which nearly all of us live, a complicated one…and yet that very complicatedness is part of what makes simplicity possible:

What’s the point of trying to live simply? I would say the point is to exist in an environment which isn’t likely to multiply out of one’s control, making one simultaneously dependent upon and divorced from those complex forces, actors, and decisions which shape one’s options. That is, a world where one can see clear through from basic personal choices to more or less dependable results, both personal and public. Of course, the world is never really going to be like that: human life is an often random, frequently tragic, always unpredictable existence….But nonetheless, some environments lend themselves to being “enclosed” more easily than others, and said enclosure doesn’t just mean retreating from reality: sometimes it means cultivating the better parts of it.

For example, look at your bicycle. It is, to be sure, an impressive and demanding piece of technology, with brakes and sprockets and derailleurs all needing to be properly tended to. But that finite number of parts are all available in open sight, requiring but also readily responding to simple, everyday, basic acts of maintenance. Compare that to the kind of complex, often hidden mechanisms which lay buried, sometimes inaccessible, under the hood of a car, requiring expert (and expensive) work to keep in running order….This is not to say that the mechanics of the internal combustion engine cannot be “enclosed,” to a degree mastered, and thus made reliably responsive to the engagement of any given driver; cars, too, can be made “simple.” But it is much more difficult, and thus much more unlikely, that the typical driver will be able to reach that point. With bicycles, simplicity, the ability to see a project through from beginning to end, is much more in reach.

I’ve written a great deal about “simplicity” over the years, some of which made it into this essay. As the years have gone by, it’s become more and more clear to me that while my ideas about simplicity are certainly grounded in a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the freedom a life only minimally-troubled by complexity makes possible, as well as an environmental desire to avoid the anticipated and costly impacts which ever-expanding (and usually ever-commercializing) complex economic systems involve, my real motivation is strictly political. A simple life, in my view, is one that is, as much as possible, self-sustaining, in a word sovereign–meaning not wholly dependent upon forces and actors (technological, economic, social, etc.) beyond oneself and one’s own immediate community. A bicycle doesn’t automatically bring such a life into existence. But I’m not the only one who has taken to riding a bicycle and grasped the connections which it reveals.

If I could write the essay over again, I would definitely remember to include a quote which I left out before: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle,” a quote attributed to the Chilean socialist politician Jose Antonio Viera Gallo. What he could be talking about there? Maybe the same thing Gandhi was talking about when he described the spinning wheel as the crucial tool of political independence for India. Developing and institutionalizing a broadly available and generally basic means of production which was entirely capable of being managed by ordinary people would have dramatic consequences for the economy of India, which was then essentially just a component in the larger complex system which was the British Empire. Similarly, turning to a technology and an attendant way of organizing one’s transportation needs and one’s places of work and living which is, on the one hand, enormously empowering for the poor, but on the other hand, also not so easily dominated by all the industries and interests and commercial imperatives which our car-dependent societies demonstrate well…that would be radically simplifying as well. Complicated, to be sure, and given the compromises which come along with modern bourgeois life, never likely to be complete. But every bit helps. Not to help bring into existence a state of bicycling fascists, but to help bring into existence a society where more people can get along and get to where they need to go without traveling so far, so expensively, so riskily, so congestedly–and, when one’s car starts making that little pinging noise which drives you crazy and you have to take it in to the shop and you get the bill afterward for some seemingly (but not nearly) simple problem, so frustratingly! If that’s socialism, well, sign me up. Call it “autarchy” if you will, but in the end, whatever the different philosophical routes involved, the results are much the same: you arrive at place where independence is connected to more people being equally familiar with their place and their capabilities, thus making it even more meaningful and fair. With some smart civic planning (some bike lanes and paths, some closed off city centers, and maybe, just maybe, some bike racks at public places for Pete’s sake!), some personal commitment, and some luck, it’s possible for people to get away from automobile dependency, to rediscover the virtue of walking to school or work or church and almost anywhere else. And, when those things are a little too far away, despite your best efforts…that’s why God invented the bike (and why smart countries make as much use of it as they can).

Of course, in framing my fondness for my bicycle (I’m pretty certain I’ve passed 5000 miles by now in my regular commute from home to work over the years here in Wichita) in these “foreign” and “socialist” ways, I risk losing whatever gains bicycling has made in the U.S. by sending up (literal?) read flags, bound to attract defensive and ignorant attacks against the idea of making America more “European” and therefore less attached to its supposedly God-given (and destructive) car-culture. Well, look. It’s undeniable that, in a country the size of the America, bicycling is going to remain a minor component in the lives of the great majority of families (we certainly haven’t put as many miles on our bikes as we have on our Toyota Sienna!). So what is the harm of recognizing that if, in certain times and certain places, you have enough people who recognize the appeal of a simpler, less expensive, more self-sustaining way of life, choose to adopt it, and want to make it easier for others to adopt as well. None at all, I think. To shy away from such confrontations isn’t just ideological cowardice; even aside from such “culture war” concerns, the truth is unless people stand up for the compromise which bicycling promises, the bureaucrats will win (keep up the good fight, Jacob!). Very simply (in more ways than one!), the bicycle works. So read the book, and if you live somewhere you can ride, do so. Who knows? Could be your happiness depends upon it.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jordan Smith September 14, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Good stuff RAF. Although I live on a small island near Vancouver, I bought a bike last winter and spent a good deal of time riding when I was in town. Vancouver has a really good network of bike routes and downtown City Hall is replacing entire car lanes with bike lanes. They even removed an entire lane of one of the main arterial bridges serving downtown, and it has been a huge success. Keep at it… the times they are a changing.

Here is a link to Gordon Price’s blog, a former city counsellor, who is a huge proponent of cycling. Check it out, there’s some interesting stuff.

avatar David September 14, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Two things when I finally lose the rest of my excess weight (I’ve lost over 65 lbs in the last couple of months and would like to see another 65 follow quickly on by Christmas.)

A nice pair of custom, hand-made cowboy boots… and a bike. Not to be sampled at the same time, of course, for while there might be some delight in it the sight would be thoroughly silly.

avatar Sam M September 15, 2010 at 5:52 am

“…which, of course, also means organizing one’s life around, and getting involved in one’s community so as to make possible, such a choice in the first place.”

The “of course” appears to be doing an awful lot of work here. I know plenty of avid cyclists who are every bit as cloistered as the McMansion-est suburbanite. The picture you include here puts me in mind of it. Look at all those regular Joes riding bikes! Only in most American cities, most of the cyclists I see are hunched over, wearing weird Lance Armstrong spandex. Sure, this is due partly to policy, but that still argues against the idea the biking “of course” equals community engagement.

Ever single person I know who serves on a school board or PTA drives a minivan. The avid cyclists I know are all single. Again, we could do better, and policy could help remedy this. Still…

avatar Russell Arben Fox September 15, 2010 at 6:28 am

Jordon, I envy you. The whole Seattle/Puget Sound/Vancouver area is not only beautiful country, but it one of the most amenable and supportive locations for bicycle commuting and general riding in the whole U.S. Not the perfect spot for such, but definitely close. I grew up in and most of my family is still located in Spokane, on the east side of the state, so I’m very familiar with all the annoyances and draw-backs associated with life on the Left Coast. But bicycling is not one of them. And thanks for the link! Such information is important. One of the tests of the mettle of FPRers is how diligent we are in the business of electing and promoting those who will work to make our places more livable, a cycling is a big part of that.

David, stick to your goal. There is a lot I haven’t attempted over my years of bike commuting that I’d like to, because I’m just not in that kind of shape yet (and maybe never will be). But I keep trying. Hope you do too.

Sam, you’re correct to note that things aren’t always, in all locations (particularly in the U.S.), as clear as I imagine them to be here. Sometimes, there really is grounds for seeing in the automobile-bicycle standoff a kind of culture war battle. I don’t see a lot of Spandex while I’m commuting–but then, I’m in Wichita, KS, and I don’t see a lot of bike commuting period (though the local topography is perfect for it). The old structuralist/Marxist in me thinks that you touch on the heart of the divide, where it exists anyway, when you mention policy. If, for example, suburbs were better designed for walkers and bikers, and schools and markets weren’t placed so far away from many of them, then more kids would grow up knowing what us 40+ year-olds remember: that the easiest way to run errands or get to school would be to bike. And that would have a greater chance of carrying over into an ethic later in life. So yes, there is cultural work that needs to be done; the wealthy, latte-sipping, bicycling/cosmopolitan probably isn’t doing the cause of simplicity any favors. We need to get more of us FPRers out of our cars and on the road to balance that out! But more broadly recognizing the way that community engagement and making such choices necessarily overlap is, I think, a needed step in that direction.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 15, 2010 at 11:56 am

As I recall, Mao presided over a lot of bike lanes, though he preferred to roll over a few whilst riding in his soviet issue ZiL limo on the way to one of his river-swimming homilies.

But why quibble? Cheers to the bikes and their bikers…except when they dress like leprechauns in broad daylight and ride four abreast across the roads, inviting more than a little vigorous horn action. They also provide a sporting diversion for my Terrier who can outrun them on half a tank.

Nothing is quite so DaDa as a bicycle lane in Gotham. Them messengers is fearless.

avatar dave September 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I started riding a bicycle after spending some time with the phrase “you shall know them by their fruits”, or maybe it was “follow the money” – can’t remember, it was some time ago, I was often dropped as a baby and the season of contemplation came after being permanently affected by exposure to John Woolman, who possessed a keen eye for the small (and large) tyrannies of life.

Sam, spandex on a middle aged man like me is not weird, it’s dorky. It’s sale should be regulated; the purchaser should have to prove they are under 40.

And this “I know plenty of avid cyclists who are every bit as cloistered as the McMansion-est suburbanite”; they are the same person, or at least possess the same ideology. The expression is different, but both seem to me to be based upon a sense of commodity rather than being. “A regular Joe” is not the attainment/appellation being sought. Possessing killer abs, maybe. my two cents.

avatar Thomas McCullough September 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I bicycle almost exclusively. Some observations:

I never start off without this feeling of wonder at the magical fluidity of it. I just push down the left pedal and by the time I slip into the right toe-clip, I’m thirty feet on. I’m 59 and I still get a wicked kick out of that.

People have spoken of the sense of freedom cars and driving give them. I feel the direct opposite. My teenage son (now 25 and without a driving license.) once observed to me that many of his co-students had part-time jobs just to have a car. A car is a dependent or, rather, an addiction.

It annoys the heck out of me that funding in my state for bicycle stuff is all recreational. They put a bike path circuit in a park or forest that one can drive to and ‘recreate’ at. I want some support to be able to go places without risking my life. I live on an island some 25 miles long and all three of the bridges to the rest of the world disallow bicycles.

I don’t understand people getting any sensory kick from driving. It’s a dead experience. I’ve a good road bike and I feel like I’m flying.

Driving is visually claustrophobic, especially in the rain. It hit me once biking in a driving rain how well I could see around me, with a genuinely euphoric “HEY, I CAN SEE EVERYTHING!”

Oh, and cars – I hate the god-damned noise.

But frankly I’m not that social, civic or responsible, am, however, poor, and find spandex incredibly icky.

avatar Jason Peters September 16, 2010 at 1:37 pm

For the record: spandex is not a right; it’s a privilege.

avatar Robb September 16, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Seven years ago we sold our car and have used bikes ever since. We live in a town that allows us to live this way but I can think of no other decision in our nearly 30 years of marriage (or in my 50 years of living) that has so fundamentally re-ordered our lives (my life). The automobile is the “great enabler” of a lot of bad behavior. It promotes (yes, I said promotes) thoughtless consumption (hop in your car and go get it). It allows us to be isolated from the communities in which we live. It, along with the airplane, permits us to neglect working at the challenges on our “nearby” because we can always drive (fly) off to solve other people’s problems elsewhere. (Trust me, I know of what I speak.)

Getting rid of one’s car liberates one from all these things and is HARD not because the “logistics” of living are more challenging, but because it forces one to actually live in one’s community and deal with the challenges there.

I just returned from a 6-day self-contained bike trip in the Sierra Mountains (stunning). Some people (too many for my taste) passing me in their cars, SUVs and RVs made signs and said things that demonstrated their disdain for what I was doing. Behind the metal and glass shield of their gas-powered vehicles they could treat me any way they pleased short of running me over since I was a non-person (or worse) to them. Interestingly, however, when I ran into similar folk at rest stops or in the campgrounds where I slept we engaged in meaningful conversation, we got to know each other, we ate and drank together and we shared, for a while at least, a common sense of being lucky to be in such a beautiful place. The moral of the story? The “being together” only started happening when there was no car between us.

FYI: I do not wear spandex, live in a McMansion, or advocate riding four abreast on the road. Biking can be a way of life that looks a lot like “normal”.

avatar rex September 17, 2010 at 9:20 am

“People on their feet are more or less equal. People solely dependent on their feet move on the spur of the moment, at three to four miles per hour, in any direction and to any place from which they are not legally or physically barred. An improvement on this native degree of mobility by new transport technology should be expected to safeguard these values and to add some new ones, such as greater range, time economies, comfort, or more opportunities for the disabled. So far this is not what has happened. Instead, the growth of the transportation industry has everywhere had the reverse effect. From the moment its machines could put more than a certain horsepower behind any one passenger, this industry has reduced equality, restricted mobility to a system of industrially defined routes, and created time scarcity of unprecedented severity. As the speed of their vehicles crosses a threshold, citizens become transportation consumers…”

Toward a History of Needs, Ivan Illich

Illich and I agree that a bicycle does not compromise this humanizing transportation standard. Except perhaps where bicycles are ridden where there are not intended. Russell, glad to meet another bicyclenista.

avatar Saint Louis September 18, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I was in Utrecht for a couple months in the summer of 2008 and can say that’s not even the busiest it gets. There were mornings when I would have to wait several minutes to cross the street because of the throng of cyclists on their way to work.

Also, it’s interesting that in that whole 6 minutes of video I saw maybe 10-12 people on cell phones while they were riding. If I drive to work here in the US I might see 10-12 people who aren’t on a phone.

avatar Julien September 19, 2010 at 11:11 am

Nice short article whose concerns reminds me quite a bit of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford in which he addresses the social, personal and ultimately instrinsic goods associated with and gained from blue-collar work and also of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, now an oldie but a goodie. I always appreciate the good articles on here and there’s definitely a sense of community that can be gained simply by reading a familiar collection of blogs/articles. Have a wonderful week!

avatar Lewis Grant September 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm

In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher drew a distinction between tools and machines which, I think, deserves more attention. Near the beginning of Chapter 4, drawing on Ananda Coomaraswamy, he contrasts a carpet loom with a power loom. As a tool, a carpet loom helps the person do the distinctly human part of the job more easily and effectively; as a machine, the power loom takes away any human part of the job. Schumacher even argues that something which eliminates the essentially human part of the work must in fact be a destroyer of culture.

It seems to me that the bicycle:car distinction is analogous. As tools, bikes help us use human effort and skill more efficiently; as machines, cars largely eliminate human effort and skill. Some might argue that driving a vehicle requires effort and skill; but have you ever heard of someone falling asleep while riding a bicycle?

In this way, bikes seem to be a far more natural mode of transportation. They use technology, to be sure, but in a way that works with nature rather than against it. Isn’t this what Heidegger was trying to get at?

avatar Psibley November 12, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I just ride to get to work. You rite real good.

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