Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Civil Society

"Anger cannot be dishonest." - Marcus Aurelius

This morning I woke up thinking I may be allowing the single most important moral imperative of my generation pass me by. Though I have been vocally supportive of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and have attended one in Portland – my lack of more in depth engagement with said protests is telling. My difficulty with engaging has more to do with a personal discomfort with mob mentality – I think sloganeering can be important to drive group solidarity - I just find it unpalatable to utter them. I also share Adam Curtis’ discomfort with individualist and heavily decentralized driven protest movements, as the lack of predefined goal and rationale dilutes message and allows for the easy infiltration and misdirection of a movement by opportunists and the nefarious.  This was the very problem that is presently seeing the declared advances of the so-called 'Arab Spring' rolled back, while elections prove problematic in many of the involved countries.

At the same time, I feel that the re-engagement with ideas and the venting of anger and frustration at the appropriate targets is a necessary.  The recklessness of Wall Street in particular and how the United States has conducted capitalism in particular has endangered the retirements and futures of much of it's population.  The gradual regression of middle class incomes against inflation (something I talked about here) further intensifies matters.  Why more ire is not being directed at the Obama administration - an administration which may even be more corporatist than that of the administration directly before it - speaks more about wishing to avoid feelings of culpability on the part of Wall Street protesters than anything.  That said, it is time that this country began to look at what unregulated capitalism has wrought - both in terms of human and environmental costs borne elsewhere.  I agree with Chris Hedges in his book "The Death of the Liberal Class" when he points to the fact that many supposed liberals have been co-opted by money and the capitalist system and have become apologists for powerful economic interests that practice institutional violence against the poor.  The policies of the Obama presidency is clearly symptomatic as is the branding as an extremist of anyone who is willing to speak out about the disadvantaged in terms of economic policy. This is also clear in the terror of third-party candidates and the vilification of Ralph Nader as a spoiler, despite the 10 million registered Democrats that voted for Bush in the 2000 election is further proof that Nader is one of the few still willing to express ideas that run counter to what the modern American liberal consensus has sold-out to.

I think where the protests are most successful is in that they have returned, to some extent, conversations about Capitalism and most importantly social class to the fore. Thus, we have the rebirth of Marxist analysis of economic and political systems without the determinist trappings of applied Marxism.  Marx may have been wrong about a good many things, however he at least presented a tangible counter ideology to free-market capitalism, which has proven itself a force similarly virulent to the old Soviet Command economies.  The triumph of singular ideology is always going to lead to extremes and human misery because ideologies can never explain the complete picture and often, by nature, willing to sacrifice human beings at the expense of self-reaffirming.  Pragmatism and competing notions of how to structure economies and governmental systems tend to lead to better outcomes in that they encourage us to look at data and develop systems that most effectively serve humanity in it's variety.

This dialogue is crucially important as so much of our culture has become commoditized.  The death of Steve Jobs and his subsequent veneration says it all.  Steve Jobs was an incredibly skilled salesman who managed to more completely integrate the seamlessness of consumerism and identity politics built around products into our lives.  Instead, he seems to be weirdly regarded by many as a singular force for good in the world, despite his repeatedly documented unkindness and unpleasantness.  That so many people seem to feel so strongly about someone who effectively sought to sell them more firmly on a consumerist lifestyle and asked them to define themselves through products (no matter how well designed) should be seen as chilling.  Instead people seem to have expressed genuine loss - which speaks to the extent of Jobs' success.  This has of course manifested itself in my generation with Hipsters - a vapid leisure class whose sole rationale for existing seems to be to define themselves by insuring that their consumer choices are cooler than anyone else. They, like the recent consumerist driven looting in North London, are the end-result of late Capitalism.  Creatures that exist not to create, but only to destroy and perpetually consume.

Valid questions are being asked, in one form or another, by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These include not just questions about the Free-market capitalism, but also about the roll of higher education, whether institutions should be allowed to charge the usurious rates that condemn students to decades or even lifetimes of indebtedness to financial institutions and why a country of the affluence of the United States cannot create living wage jobs or provide adequate health care or affordable housing for much of it's population.  Whether this movement will inspire the appropriate degree of terror in politicians to shift thinking somewhat in Washington or if entrenched financial interests will find convenient means to undermine change remains to be seen. Economic ideology has been skewered so far to one-side of the debate that the centre may be beginning to come apart.  This is cause of hope as it may prove to drive an eventual restoration of civil society altogether. 

1 comment:

Devika said...

Thanks for this, Alex. A great, balanced look at the Occupy protests.

Also the most pertinent, least petulant definition of hipsters I think I've ever encountered.