A Political Outsider in Seattle Wants Tech Billionaires to Drive Social Change

John Roderick - alt-rock star with The Long Winters, journalist, bon vivant, raconteur - is deep into his campaign for a Seattle City Council seat. The primary is on August 4th and as a first-timer Roderick’s the outsider, despite some remarkable gains in recent weeks (he’s been helped by the backing of high-profile friends, including Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic). So: he’s an actual politician, fighting an uphill battle to attain actual office. I’m not expecting a huge amount when I ask, tentatively, whether it might be desirable to limit the amount of wealth it’s possible for a single person or corporation to accrue.

‘Absolutely.’

Really? Seattle, let’s remember, is a city in the United States of America, a nation where the idea of universal healthcare is regularly attacked as rank socialism and tax is viewed by many as legalised theft. An emphatic ‘yes’ seems a remarkable stance.

But he’s off. ’The idea that monopoly capitalism is a pure state of nature and that accruing endless wealth is a civil right is the mental sickness of our age. Just the timidity with which you framed the question reveals our pathology: even suggesting there might be reasonable limits to how many of our common resources one person can commandeer is whispered like an outrageous blasphemy. If the state has a reasonable interest in determining who can marry, who can drink alcohol and who can serve on a jury, the state can also claim a reasonable interest in determining that, past a certain point, wealth is taxed at the rate of 100%.’

One thing that sets him apart is a robust resistance to many of the entrenched attitudes and assumptions of the left, for instance with reference to the ultra-richCandour, boldness, humanity and imagination, of course, are precisely why I got in touch with Roderick in the first place. Qualities he has in spades - and which are on constant display on Roderick on the Line, his weekly podcast with fellow professional interesting person Merlin Mann - they are exactly what was missing from our own recent UK election. But the other thing that sets him apart is a robust resistance to many of the entrenched attitudes and assumptions of the left, for instance with reference to the ultra-rich.

‘The thing is,’ he says, ‘that all of Seattle's billionaires think of themselves as swashbuckling adventurers, crusaders, heroes. They definitely do NOT perceive themselves as swells or pillagers. The classic revolutionary model is to incite the masses to rebel against their oppressive masters, but the modern tech masters see themselves as the most revolutionary of all of us!’

So, tacking away from the 100% taxation redistributive model, is there a way to make gross inequality work to the benefit of the commonweal?

‘Yes. There’s an opportunity to enlist the the ultra-rich, to play upon their egos and identities as "disrupters" to effect social change. They all want to build private rocket ships, but innovative transit isn't that far removed. The convergence of technology that's about to transform cities has a kind of Tomorrowland quality: self-driving cars, liquid salt batteries, omnipresent surveillance, solar and tidal power, virtual reality and AI. The challenge is to build these fun, cool infrastructures while ensuring that access, equitability, and affordability are baked in. Getting the billionaires psyched about building out the cityscape is a fun challenge.’ 

So he doesn’t subscribe to the view of the 1% as a cabal of self-interested, calculating evil robber barons?

"I’m still surprised at how few of the politicians I’ve met have ever earned minimum wage"‘It happens more by virtue of being surrounded by people who exclusively agree with you. From [the billionaire’s] perspective, I imagine the world is pretty disinteresting. He keeps meeting all these supposedly interesting people and they all fawn all over him. He rightly feels that maybe he IS the smartest guy in the world, and acts accordingly. It doesn’t mean that those billionaire types are disinterested in civics, only that they get constant reinforcement that their half-baked readings of the situation must be completely accurate. It’s not evil, it’s banal.’

It’s the place of public representatives, he says, to oversee the relationship between the public good and the very affluent. Which brings us to another problem: those public representatives. What about THEIR intentions? Are THEY a self-interested cabal? Again, he doesn’t think the truth isn’t so simple or easy.

‘I think we perceive dishonest intentions where in most cases the truth is much less sinister. Most politicians succumb to corruption very gradually, through tiny incremental surrenders. They agree to something without considering it closely in order to please an advisor, or they make what seems like an insignificant concession to a donor, or in one of a thousand other ways they innocently nod when they should have remained still and ultimately find themselves committed to something alien. That is the beginning of losing their way, and for most political hopefuls I imagine it starts happening almost immediately.’

And what about the problem - the UK and the US certainly share this - that many, many politicians are by experience and indoctrination unsympathetic to the disadvantaged? Can a career politician from a privileged background understand the issues at play?

‘I’m still surprised at how few of the politicians I’ve met have ever earned minimum wage, been temporarily homeless, been in trouble with the police, lived on the dole, or in any other way experienced what is normal life for a lot of people. Their life experiences aren’t all grand, and many of them had hard childhoods, but from a certain point in their teens or twenties they all kick in a driving ambition that keeps them from harm. Ambitious people are fond of imagining that what the poor really lack is ambition, which is why there’s so much judgment attached to poverty. Politicians want to help the poor, if only the poor were willing to help themselves.’

Which is problematic, of course. A certain worldly success seems a prerequisite of political feasibility, yet that kind of success can lead to the conviction (conscious or otherwise) that there are limitless opportunities for it.

YOU DIVORCE ART FROM CIVICS AND YOU GET A NATION OF DULL-MINDED SCAVENGERS

‘The American ideal is to raise yourself up from nothing. It's a homegrown cult, what differentiates us from the calcified dynamic of serfs and aristocrats. We can ALL make it to the top here! There's a wonderful book called Albion's Seed that details the evolution of the American identity and explains pretty well why people here so often vote against their own interests in favour of an ideal of the übermensch and limitless wealth. The idea that the roads are a public good, clean water is a public good, labor laws are a public good, all these things were settled and fixed a long time ago, and the contemporary capitalist imagines they were always here, given to us long ago by the gods. Likewise our lawful rights, our regulation, our court of appeals. They never had to struggle for these things so they believe they are permanent forces, like gravity. Therefore, all profit stems solely from their ingenuity and genius. They owe nothing to anyone. It's a cursed mindset, and I blame the business schools for teaching no ethics, no art. You divorce art from civics and you get a nation of dull-minded scavengers.’

One thing that’s always struck me about Roderick is the vigour and sense of endeavour that’s central to his conception of social life. The left is very often prone to - and vulnerable to accusations of - nannyism, of being hostile to endeavour and inventiveness, whereas he has an energy and a sense of optimism that is more usually found in right-leaning rhetoric. It’s a winning combination.

‘Liberal ideas, in moderation, are the only truly exciting ideas, because they rely on our best selves. Most other "isms" are reactionary, convinced of our Hobbesian natures. Only liberalism believes we can work together for a common GOOD, not just band together to defeat a common threat.’

Reaching the voters without help from this gatekeeping class is incredibly difficultWe’re nearly at the end of our exchange, but his last point brings me to something else he said recently, a partial rebuttal of the dictum ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’. He wants to bring poetry - metaphor, imagination, new ways of looking - into both. Is he finding that his distinctive way of articulating/describing things, as well as his sometimes unexpected positions, are making otherwise politically unfeasible discussions feasible?

‘Not with the political class. The established players in Seattle, the journalists and operatives and consultants and advisors, are completely disinterested in, or bemusedly hostile to, someone entering politics with a different way of thinking. They don’t want a different way, they benefit from being experts at the established way, so they insinuate themselves in between candidates and the general public and sneer or smirk.’

I was hoping to hear that his force of personality and charisma had combined with his surprising expertise in civic matters to deliver an unmistakeable and immediate jolt. No?

‘Reaching the voters without help from this gatekeeping class is incredibly difficult. The only way to do it is either with piles of your own money or with access to media by other means. I have some of the latter, but not enough to turn the tide of the election.’

It’s not exactly how I’d hoped to end the conversation: listening to Roderick’s passionate, informed, funny, surprising observations were of genuine solace over the politically unpleasant last month in the UK. Of course, he’s now swimming in the waters of real politics and governance, and there will be challenges posed here that don’t arise during the course of a Roderick on the Line episode. His mettle is going to be tested; his appeal as the political outsider put under extreme duress.

Still, if it were going to be easy we (Seattle, the US, the world) wouldn’t need people like John Roderick. No matter the difficulties, something tells me that if there’s anyone out there who can impose his character and thinking on a recalcitrant, ossified politics it’s him. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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