The Enjoyment of Cycling Activism


“Emancipation must be universal because emancipation for some and not for others is the formula

of oppression” (Todd McGowan).

Urban cycling activism is a type of social movement that is often linked to the left political spectrum, but does not really have an inherent political definition. This activism initially builds its politics on the enjoyment generated by bicycle travel in cities, but in the face of the failures of its agenda it can easily end up pushing a conservative one. A lesson that the different left-wing projects should consider.

Todd McGowan in his recent book Enjoyment Right & Left defines that the politics of right or left is sustained and constructed around enjoyment (jouissance), as a concept of psychoanalysis, which is different from pleasure. Pleasure we experience through the reduction of arousal,such as orgasm at the end of the sexual act; it is obtaining the object withinthe confines of the social order. Enjoyment, on the other hand, is the construction of tension to arrive at pleasure. In this sense, enjoyment implies giving us a problem, the absence or loss of an object(unattainable), it requires a kind of sacrifice (self-destructive) and its attractiveness is constructed in the unconscious.

Žižek exemplifies it as follows: “a simple illicit love affair without risk concerns mere pleasure, whereas an affair which is experienced as a “challenge to the gallows” – as an act of transgression – procures enjoyment; enjoyment is the “surplus” that comes from our knowledge that our pleasure involves the thrill of entering a forbidden domain – that is to say, that our pleasure involves a certain displeasure.”

In this sense, cycling is pleasurable when successfully completing a journey, as described by Vailland when watching a cyclist finish a stage: “he experienced the same jubilation as when I manage to finish a chapter that I feel satisfied with” (Vela, 2020). However, cycling involves enjoyment, whether in sporting activities[1] and in the form of urban travel. Making a bicycle trip within the city implies getting involved in the purchase of a bike (or renting one) plus all its equipment, as well as making a physical effort to move around(maintaining a pedalling cadence, a repetitive movement). Depending on the route, the trip can be challenging, tiring or dangerous. Sometimes it involves making risky manoeuvres or breaking traffic rules to reach the destination. A whole series of continuous difficulties, with personal sacrifice, plus bringing the repetition of pedalling to the level of (death) drive especially for those who make long journeys and do sport.

The poet Sandro Cohen sums up well what bicycle travel in cities entails when he refers to his experience in Mexico City: “From getting on the bike to the evasion of potholes, hoses and dangerous cracks, to the mystique of passing a car or bus, it requires knowledge of cause…Only up to a certain point can we taste the world in theory: the rest is a matter of getting our hands dirty, sweating and enjoying learning.” Here he acknowledges the situation described above, riding a bike in the city is not a continuous pleasure, it is an enjoyment. McGowan notes “suffering is a necessary ingredient in enjoyment, as the anxiety produced in the ride up the hill…Enjoyment occurs through some form of self-destruction, which is why it is absolutely irreducible to conscious intention.”[2]

But the reason why trips are made by bike is the fantasy that generates the enjoyment, and clearly it is more than just the utility of the displacement (it is cheap, fast and practical in short distances), many times it is self-justified under some transcendent objective such as the idea of achieving emancipation and freedom (e.g. from motorized vehicles), to achieve environmental sustainability (climate change), for well-being (I do physical exercise, it is therapeutic, and so on), to democratize public space, among other reasons[3]. The practical result does include (in part) achieving the above and it is pleasurable to achieve it, such as getting to work faster or being in better physical condition, but in the best of cases this pleasure is only at the individual level. Riding a bicycle does little to reduce climate change, since emissions are part of the productive model of capitalism. The object of individual travel is not enough to reach the absent object we fantasize about (i.e. sustainability).

Therefore, riding a bicycle in the city, for daily trips, implies a generation of enjoyment. A missing or absent object is pursued(sustainability, freedom, etc.),it implies a personal sacrifice(physical effort, leaving the car, etc.) and undoubtedly getting into trouble (road conflicts, equipment, where to leave the bike without it being stolen, fighting for space with cars, etc.).

Sandro Cohen recognizes this enjoyment is also for other cyclists, although he calls it pleasure because he is not familiar with the terms of psychoanalysis. “As it gives pleasure and even delight to observe how a good craftsman works, to appreciate the good cyclist in action, giving way, passing safely, stopping at dangerous intersections, gliding along at a good pace when the coast is clear…All this is also a pleasure, and not only for theone who observes it, it is also for the craftsman – I mean cyclist-self.”

It is on this enjoyment that the politics of cycling activism builds its discourse, for which it starts by appealing to the non-belonging of cyclists to mobilize them. Under capitalism, most of the world’s cities structure their urban space and travel in terms of motor vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc.). Streets, their materials (pavement), signaling, auxiliary spaces (parking) have been designed with primary emphasis on automobile use. Bicycles have no place in these spaces, they do not belong to this space – although the space do not belong to any particular group, the use and benefits of city streets are determined by the dynamics of capitalism.

Cyclist activists start from this non-belonging in the capitalist urban space to build their project, pointing to an evident contradiction in cities: the automobile is sold as freedom, as status, as comfort, etc., but its massive use generates dysfunctional urban environments, even for capitalism itself. Vehicular congestion, long commuting times, pollution, road accidents, etcetera. A contradiction of capitalism, because despite its negative effects that even affect the accumulation of capital of certain sectors, it becomes an essential vehicle for the circulation of people and goods in the cities. There is a dependence on the use of automobiles by contemporary capitalism.

The cycling movement’s agenda has as one of its central elements of its agenda the development of dedicated bicycle infrastructure (i.e.bicycle lanes), but they continually face car dependency, in the form of different local or government interests, who point out that the road space is dedicated to cars and that changing the space will worsen traffic, harm mobility, the local economy, and so on. While not necessarily true, these are the kinds of arguments they face that stop many bicycle infrastructure projects. Similarly, despite what bike activists advocate, a large proportion of automobile trips are not likely to be replaced by bicycle trips in the short term, so their proposals are often not accepted as realistic.

Quickly this opposition to generating space dedicated to bicycles turns much of cycling activism into a politics of enemies: cars are the ones that prevent us from traveling by bicycle, comfortably and safely- moving away from questioning why the automobile has become necessary for contemporary capitalism and all the contradictions it generates. Thus, cyclists transform this non-belonging in the capitalist urban space, in a discourse of belonging, of an identity group, in bikes vs cars, in cyclists vs motorists (or in Spanish “cochistas” (cars-ist) as they derogatorily refer to them, a fantasy of the enemy[4]). Cars must be defeated, so finish giving a twist to the enjoyment that is usually used by the right, the creation of enemies as part of the policy.[5]

The adoption of the adversarial culture of cars vs. bikes is typical in cycling activism. From the movie Bikes Vs Cars (see Fredrik Gertenn), to organized competitions to see who gets there faster on a route (cars vs. bikes),to paraphernalia ranging from triumphalist warfare(with the classic image of a cyclist over a car raising his bike), to arguments comparing the costs of use, health, space or environmental costs between the two vehicles.

As McGowan rightly points out: “When it proves impossible to overcome contradiction – as it necessarily must, since contradiction is structurally necessary for every society and every form of subjectivity – leftist leaders will try to identify an enemy responsible for the persistence of contradiction. Once the search for an enemy begins, they leave the project of emancipation behind and implicitly embarks on the conservative one of turning contradiction into opposition. It is only by holding firm to the contradiction that we sustain a genuinely leftist enjoyment.”

And this turn, moreover, allows to cohere the activists around the bicycle, to affirm their identity through opposition, between those who belong (to the cycling movement) and those who do not, but this sows the seeds of their failure. As McGowan writes:

“Conservative enjoyment is always derivative. It translates the emancipatory enjoyment of an internal contradiction into the enjoyment of opposition, the opposition between friend and the enemy, between those who belong and those who don’t…The enemy that the rightist forges out of the contradiction is always a stand-in for the inherent failure of the social order itself. The enemy emerges as the personification of contradiction, a personification that makes the path to enjoyment clearer for the rightist than for the leftist, even though right-wing enjoyment represents a fundamental betrayal of the basic emancipatory possibility inherent in the social structure”

This conservative turn makes it impossible for this type of cycling activism to become emancipatory, as it can hardly go beyond a small circle of adherents, who tend to radicalize[6]. The result is evident, it ends up generating internal conflicts among individuals of the organizations, among other organizations and with many segments of society, reducing its social reach. They even end up generating major social conflicts with car users and with authorities [7] that prevent different cycling infrastructure projects from being carried out successfully. Thus, cycling activism that exploits conservative enjoyment defeats itself.

There is a way out of this, and undoubtedly it involves returning to politically inhabiting the contradiction between the automobile and the city in capitalism, leaving aside the politics of creating enemies, and developing a politics in pursuit of a universal, of highlighting that in the capitalist city non-ownership is universal, not something exclusive to cyclists, and that the struggle for the right to the city shows the way. This implies for cycling activism to blur the identity they have forged on the basis of false opposition to the automobile and to contemplate a struggle on a larger scale. The alternative option is to isolate themselves politically and lose the city.

It is worth recalling García Linera’s remark regarding the isolation of the activist: “It is not that the political struggle is only the struggle for the State. No. The political struggle overflows the State, but it also passes through the State, it constitutes the State. And then when the activist, the union leader, the academic, the researcher, the trade unionist remains only in his local struggle, apparently outside the State, he only focuses his attention and his strength on a particular issue; he can obtain a result, he can obtain a small change in the metabolism of capitalism, but in the long run capitalism reproduces itself by absorbing and feeding on that fragmented energy. Isolated activism becomes without one wanting or desiring it a productive force of capitalism because it helps it to regenerate itself, it helps it to empower itself without desiring it helps it to expand.”

Finally, the answer does not lie in an “essentialist” turn, as if it were possible for cycling to return to its authentic “roots”, to seek to “recover” the city from cars, as if there had been an idyllic past of modern cities without automobiles. And an authentic cycling that would not have been linked to the rise of cars, when they have always gone hand in hand. It is worth remembering the in the anti-racist struggle of Malcolm X, in adopting the X, which Žižek highlights. For whites it is in their interest that the “authentic” roots of people of color be sought or affirmed, in order to maintain a subordinate status. The gesture given by Malcolm X, was exemplary: ” instead of searching for particular black roots and identity, he accepted the X (the lack of ethnic roots) as a unique chance to assert a universality different from the one imposed by the whites.”

[1] Vela (2020) points out the construction of the epic of sports cycling around the cyclist’s sacrifice, of course, as a function of the sports business. That is, capitalism takes advantage of enjoyment for the generation of profit. “The live image of individual suffering for the sake of an improbable victory, reserved for a single winner, is the epic wrapping that covers the prosaic reality of the professional sacrifice of an individual who gives himself to the limit of his strength in exchange for a chrematistic reward. This is what the professional cyclist dedicates himself to; however, at first glance, there is no money to pay for his immolation at each stage.” (Vela, 2020, p. 49).

[2] This is totally related to the drive, to an autonomous act beyond the conscious. “The Freudian drive, however, designates precisely the paradox of “wanting unhappiness”, of finding excessive pleasure in suffering itself.” Žižek (1991, p. XLII).

[3] In terms of urban planning, it is also recognized that it goes beyond utility and it has some kind of social and even transcendent objective. For example, Koglin, Brömmelstroet and van Wee mention: “it is important to realize that increasing cycling levels is not an aim in itself. Rather, cycling is a way to provide affordable, convenient, and safe transport for everyone, to ensure high levels of accessibility, to offer an attractive alternative to car use, to make cities more livable and attractive, to improve environmental quality, and to enhance public health.”

[4] See Medina (2022) for a more detailed explanation of the term “cochismo” in Spanish and the creation of a false identity.

[5] This is to take up in a way the premise of Carl Schmitt, who points out that it requires the existence of enemies for the creation of the public sphere: “The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relation to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomespublic by virtueof such a relationship.” (McGowan, 2022, p. 106). This dichotomous position is undoubtedly limited if one wants to build an emancipatory project of universal cut.

[6] This is the case of Mexico City in 2021, where the Colectivo Justicia para Todxs, under the slogan #ViernesDeFuria (Fury Fridays) and in the face of severalfatal road incidentsinvolving cyclists, took the confrontation to the streets in the form of road closures, confrontations with individual motorists, with the police,attack on public buildings. A more aggressive version of the classic critical mass. In addition, they openly differentiated themselves from the more traditional cycling organizations in Mexico City by engaging in direct action.

[7] When faced with a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) type conflict, the authorities tend to favor car use before confronting the population and facing the contradictions generated by the massive use of cars in cities, given the low social support for this type of measure.