Friday, October 14, 2011

Pernicious Babble: Occupy Wall St. and the Fight to Save Capitalism

Our celebrity radicals have been tripping over themselves to endorse the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, and as the empty words spill from their mouths, their intellectual bad faith becomes increasingly apparent. Many of these hacks have always been mouthy Democrats, despite their half-hearted forays into radical critique. Thus, understanding their reactions to the Occupy Wall Street protest illuminates the rotten foundation of this movement and the system it allegedly opposes.

For instance, Naomi Klein, among the heaviest hitters in the celebrity-radical set, had this to say about Occupy Wall St.: “This is not the time to be looking for ways to dismiss a nascent movement against the power of capital, but to do the opposite: to find ways to embrace it, support it and help it grow into its enormous potential. With so much at stake, cynicism is a luxury we simply cannot afford.”

If a respectable journalist like Klein deems it necessary to instruct us to ignore that nagging cynicism to criticize and dismiss, this alone is proof positive that there is much to be cynical, critical and dismissive about. The more support these "radical" elites give to a movement, the more reason we have to question it. When she says that “cynicism is a luxury we simply cannot afford,” what she is really saying, in classic goose-stepping ideological fashion, is that in times of crisis, critical thinking is an indulgence. When Klein counsels that “any attempt to create a genuinely open space to share political ideas is necessarily going to be chaotic and at times embarrassing,” she is in effect preemptively admonishing us into complicity with a movement we cannot understand because we are permitted to ask only positive - that is, pre-approved and stage-managed - questions. She is instructing us to take what is in reality entirely the wrong course of action - to not ask is why it is so chaotic and embarrassing and to passively accept it for the sake of being on board with an incoherent program for no other reason than it exists, echoing the same “no alternative” script as our system's more honest and open neo-liberal defenders. There’s also an aftertaste of shame in these words. Like Dr. Frankenstein begging the townsfolk for mercy on his idiot monster, Klein defends this admittedly embarrassing movement based on many of the reformist principles gussied up as a revolution that she peddles in her books.

Indeed, the crypto-Stalinist message here is clear enough. Don’t criticize a movement that has been organized for you, especially if it has the blessing of your officially sanctioned “voices of opposition” - the Kliens, the Chomskys, the Moores, the Wests, the Zizeks, the Sarandons, the Goodmans, the Rushkoffs, the Ehrenreichs. Ignore that sinking feeling that this spectacle of revolt may be distracting you from actually participating in a real one. Grab a sign, get in the street, and unless you’re following the script, keep your mouth shut. This wet fart of a movement is all you’re going to get, in other words, so you all better get on board.

Asking honest questions might lead to some uncomfortable conclusions, not only of the true nature of this movement, but of the leadership of the Left, and what their true message and mission actually are. We might just figure out that what they really want is more capitalism.

And it is the all-too-quick willingness of the rest of us to comply with this injunction to be supportive of any group as long as it seems to be doing something, even if that something is nothing, that seals off the possibility of the remnants of a radical movement from engaging in critical self-reflection, a re-examination of its goals and tactics, a process without which it will be entirely ill-equipped to confront a nearly omnipotent enemy, the Holy Alliance of Wall Street and Washington, two arms of the same control apparatus. It is this intransigent unwillingness to face up to uncomfortable truths, to take a long, cold look in the mirror, that is the principal handicap of a Left that is schlepping its way into the grave, all the while going through the motions that time and again have accomplished nothing. All this as if to fulfill its pre-assigned role so faithfully, so completely, as though it had no choice but to consecrate its own demise by turning itself into a bad joke, serving up the same old punch lines that keep losing their punch. That noise wafting up from Wall Street is not the virile bellowing of a reinvigorated Left, but rather the death rattle of its last helpless gasps for air.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks: what is it about Occupy Wall Street that is so embarrassing, what is it that evokes such disdain among so many people, a disdain equal to or surpassing the cheap, point-and-click solidarity among others? It’s not the stupid signs, Che flags, or the “ultra-Leftist” clich├ęs repeated ad nauseum. It’s not the morons who get on television, giddy in their millisecond of fame, nor is it the celebrities who make speeches with out the slightest trace of self-awareness. It’s not the ordering pizzas or Tweeting the revolt. It’s not the leaderlessness, nor is it the disorganization. It’s not events such as “Slut Walks” or the “General Assemblies,” nor is it the call-and-response, cult indoctrination of the speaking events.

No, there is only reason why Occupy Wall Street is an embarrassment, and it is from whence all these other embarrassments derive: it is not a movement against the “power of capital,” as Klein would have it, but one of capital’s chief methods of self-defense, and one of its most alluring products.

Despite the much-vaunted “message-less” message of the Occupy Wall Street movement, over these past few weeks, several main concerns have shaken loose that confirm the charge that what they seek is not the destruction of a system of domination or the abolition of its most degrading institutions, such as wage labor and private property, but a more “equitable” distribution of its so-called benefits. Indeed, as if to prove they conform to the logic of the media that incessantly advertises the status quo, many go out of their way to say they are explicitly not a radical movement, as if they were afraid of scaring off the timid masses, like marketing company touting the family-friendliness of their products. As the movement itself struggles to become more broad-based and inclusive, the same old watered-down demands ring in our ears: good education, good jobs, affordable housing, and access to health care. Some have even suggested Obama convene a panel to explore the influence of money in politics - as though it’s some big mystery. In point of fact, that the kids who unquestionably make up a majority of this movement are college-educated but with no hope of anything but the most menial service jobs illustrates that what they really seek is the reclamation of the privileges that have been stripped of them in the most recent economic crisis and would in all likelihood pack up and go home if they were offered jobs, perfectly content to leave the whole rotten system intact.

But these privileges have not evaporated due to greed and pigheadedness among the ownership/investment classes. They have evaporated as part of the normal function of the system. When capitalism got itself into one of its usual crises back in 2008, it was the majority of the population who had to make do with less in order for the system to survive - hence the “austerity measures.” Naturally, the OWSers point to this as a grave injustice, illustrating the greed and corruption of the “1%” who allowed millions to slide into poverty and misery rather than altruistically sacrifice their own position and status. This of course begs the question of just what in the hell they thought was going to happen. In the absence of a viable radical, revolutionary movement (and all actually-existing organizations that claim this mantle are in the last analysis still hitched to liberalism) there was no other course of action possible. This “injustice” is in fact part of the normal running of the system, and not the evil machinations of the “bad guys” on Wall Street. Those “bad guys” maintain power as a class through their management and administration of the economy, a rigged game that structures the world, the rules of which they have written to ensure their perpetual victory. It is entirely ludicrous to speak of “economic injustice” (a true contradiction in terms if there ever was one) or any sort of equitable social arrangement, without simultaneously rejecting existing society in its totality because those injustices are in reality merely the most visible, superficial phenomena of a system predicated on domination. We are in the midst of a power relationship that is maintained through economic management, not the victims of greedy leaders who need to be replaced or put in check. In other words, rampant poverty and crushing misery are not the result of a neutral field run badly, but the inevitable result of the social power of the ownership/investment classes, those few who organize the many. Indeed, a hierarchically structured society cannot function on any other basis. It is precisely through hard-nosed pragmatism of our economic arrangements, to which we are all beholden, that that class maintains its power, and this is the crucial point that so many fail to recognize.

In a word, the elites are not simply corrupt, greedy villains who treat others unjustly; they control a class relationship with the rest of us, the very existence of which ensures its power though the very act of economic management. Even “gains” of the welfare state, Western Europe's perfected failure, were in reality allowances made by the ruling classes to head off the upsurge of radical workers in their countries, a species more or less unknown on the North American continent, to ensure everyone will remain compliant and quiet without really challenging the existing power structures. This compliance and obsequity is the enduring hallmark and legacy of the cowed Middle Class. Now, as capital demolishes the welfare state brick-by-brick in order to save itself, movements like OWS and the anti-austerity protests in Britain are simply picking up the pieces and asking for a few to be put back, failing to grasp that the elites, as long as they exist, will by necessity always put their own interests first. Without acknowledging this basic power relationship, the OWSers are not challenging they way our society actually functions. Instead, despite their pseudo-militant rhetoric, they are asking our leaders to be more generous with the scraps. But Christmas Day will never come for kids camping out on Wall Street, waiting for the Scrooges in the banks to generously throw half a crown out the window so that we all might feast on the prize turkey. No, the picture of brokers sipping champagne from stock exchange balconies while the unwashed rabble writhe in their filth below is the key and instructive image to keep in mind here regarding the reality of the situation and power relation at work. Shit, you almost have to admire their arrogance and self-assurance. They know they have all the chips in hand and are in no danger of losing a single one that they don't seek to relinquish.

This conclusion, incidentally, is validated with each union endorsement the OWSers get. Unions, despite their occasional, cynical nod to old-school worker’s movement rhetoric have never been anything more than lubricant to ease workers into compliance with a capitalist system, winning them minor comforts in order to make their domination more palatable.

Meanwhile, the OWSers play dress-up as their 60s forebears, generally going through the motions of pseudo-revolt - holding up signs, marching up and down the street, playing cat-and-mouse with the police (the really hip ones sleep a night in jail before being given citations), and spout the empty, dead rhetoric of “Leftism." This charade is carefully preparing the deathbed of whatever remains of a radical movement in America by co-opting its language and discarding its critique, rechristening opposition to this miserable society as its saving grace. If the OWS movement was really seen as a threat by the state, we would really see some police brutality, as in London this past August. For now, it’s quite content to be a freak show, a carnival without the subversive inversion of social relations, and which has simply become the latest tourist attraction in Lower Manhattan.

We must confront the fact that the only organizations which might oppose this state-economic Holy Alliance are those that refuse this society in toto, and in the most radical possible terms. Any group that claims to be radical must be evaluated on this basis. All of them fall short of this basic requirement - from the OWSers to the Zapatistas to AdBusters to the joke of a Communist Party or the walking corpse of 60s liberalism masquerading as anarchism, to all the Hardt and Negri fans—because they ultimately seek to control and reform our miserable system, not replace it. Indeed the marketplace must be torched, not made more user-friendly. And at this point the only thing that presents a significant threat to the marketplace is the marketplace itself, currently being run so irrationally that it is falling apart. The question is whether or not its custodians will be able to save it one more time, and if so, how it continues to impose disaster upon disaster on the planet itself, the ultimate source of its wealth, to the point where it becomes uninhabitable. These are the real threats to our socio-economic system, not some college kids beating drums in the street. Not that they ever really wanted to oppose it in the first place. All they really seek is a more human face on this whole state of affairs, which would really be the most inhuman thing about it.

Deep down, we all know that if this or any other movement were making the “1%” shake in their shoes, they’d be in jail, not with some bullshit slap-on-the-wrist citation, but with show trials followed-up by long-term prison sentences. Even the 60s nostalgia addicts see that much. The forms of protest that won’t land you in jail don’t matter, because they have been approved by and in fact are sanctioned by elites as a means of creating the illusion of something like democracy. Despite the occasional skirmishes, the NYPD is mostly observing with disdain, like the rest of us. As for us, lauding this pseudo-activity simply because it takes on the appearance of activity is entirely the wrong approach because anything that does lot lie in direct opposition to our society ultimately reinforces its power in that we become unable to imagine anything outside of it or beyond it. Like the Tea Party movement, it becomes just another consumable political attitude, a detergent with which we wipe clean our daily compliance while the system continues along its mad way, indifferently and relentlessly replicating and expanding itself with force seemingly as inevitable as gravity. We become ingrained with the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds, an idea that would be absurd if it wasn’t so horrifying.

The situation is indeed dire and very likely hopeless; though one can never rule out change in the course of history, one should certainly not count on it either. Ignoring this hopelessness simply to remain “positive” is to insist on willful blindness to the reality that is all too easy to discern for those willing to see it. It is this hopeless, horrifying reality that must be confronted, and this confrontation is a modest but crucial first step in creating a world that has never existed. It is meaningless to discuss human emancipation without explicitly working to dispel our own cherished illusions, our most pernicious babble endlessly regurgitated as if this was in itself a revolutionary act.