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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An Undifferentiated Mass of Human Dignity

It's an anti-capitalism thing.  No, it's an anti-war thing.  No, it's a civil rights thing.  No, it's a desert topping.  No, it's a floor wax.

Occupy:  Social Supernova?
Ever since the Occupy movement began garnering mainstream media attention there has been an energetic, maybe even desperate, debate to define the significance of thousands of people from all over the nation spontaneously gathering in America's large urban centres, decrying the rapacious criminality of the establishment--all sans identifiable figureheads or fixed policy programmes.

Yes, from the start it was clear that, in its broadest outlines at least, this thing was a passionate rebuke to parasitic Wall Street types.  Whatever that may mean in actual practice, it's definitely not a formulation consistent with laissez faire economics a la the Koch brothers' Tea Party.  So not surprising that most right wing analyses approached the topic with a dismissive laziness.  They've crafted fear into a formidable electoral weapon and are well familiar with the coward's first law of dealing with Truly Scary Things:  avoid real contact.

That general approach, however, is hardly the exclusive resort of the right wing.  It is, in fact, the universal reaction of all establishment types accross the board.  Witness the White House's statement about the Occupy movement.

And that is the point most interesting to me, as a recovering Obama zombie.  Not so much that His Zero-ness is not even trying to swim with the raw, powerful populist currents churning within Occupy, but that those on the institutional left are not doing a helluva lot better.[1]

Analyses during the early, pre-mainstream exposure pretty much focused around the creeping sense of unease felt by veteran activists when confronted with the informal, unpolished and unfocused demeanor of some demonstrators. 

While I've only become really engaged with public affairs recently, I identify most closely with this group of commentators.  They may have much more extensive pedigrees of activist involvement than I, but we all share one key characteristic:  a relatively simplistic linear model of the world. Something akin to a cold, impersonal, mathematical dogma bound by a rigid series of theorems and acceptable logic that is fatally dependant upon the artificially constricted environment of 2-dimensional Euclidian space.  Just as where A+B=C and C=2A, then A=B, when social outcomes are a function of the implementation of policy programmes by formal authorities, all movements seeking to affect social change must have designated leaders and a fixed platform of specific policies.

Elegant notion, that, no?  Makes a man feel superior.  Powerful.  Easy able to comprehend the vast workings of the society around him and have a decisive impact.  'Cept it don't quite work that way in the real world.

We live in a world of at least 4 dimensions (height, depth, width and time) and certainly more, if you're able to contemplate the inescapable yet ineffable fact of human subjectivity.  Within certain specialized domains, the objective statistics of a person's height, weight, eye color and age may be crucial, but are totally inadequate to evaluating that person's tangible impact on his family and co-workers.  Is he smart or stupid?  Funny or morose?  Energetic or slothful?  Handsome or hideous?  Generous or niggardly?  We ultimately care a lot more about these questions than we do whether he's 5'10 1/2" or 6' or his eyes are most accurately described as green or hazel.

But what exactly is intelligence?  Humor?  Vitality?  Attractiveness?  Generosity?  Those are philosophical or religious questions that the mathematicians, myself included, have utterly failed to acknowledge, let alone resolve.

This is exactly what Occupy is or should be teaching us.  How to come together as people and articulate a clear consensus of values that actually work.  It is no longer acceptable to passively trust the dithering buffoons formally charged with interpreting received wisdom, quite simply because that "wisdom" does not work and has not worked for quite some time.  Occupy is about morality, not politics.  It is most definitely a type of activism, but one more concerned with developing a shared moral vision of society's priorities than in establishing yet another corruptible "leader" or co-optable policy programme.

Until Occupy, America's been kind of winging this one.  Lost in almost completely unchartered territory.  True, there are ample historical precedents for crumbling superpowers undermined by a feedback loop of dysfunctional entrenched interests and incompetent leadership.  But never in the context of a society philosophically on autopilot, almost completely indifferent to actual engagement about the moral content of its choices.

Let's not screw this one up again, America.  Let's not insist on Occupy being a closed-ended event, smashed viciously into the unforgiving mold of our stupid personal prejudices.  Let's accept this beautiful gift for what it is on it's own terms--a process, not an event.

[1]  Obama's motivation in avoiding the thing is obvious.  He's a cack-handed snake oil salesman who will say anything to avoid true conflict and achieve short-term electoral advantage.  His deal with the Devil in defunding Social Security through extended payroll tax holidays sapped, quite rightly, Democratic support for a jobs bill that contained many otherwise useful provisions such as a rebalancing of income tax policy.  Obama finds himself hoplessly cornered by Republican demands that, in exchange for bringing the bill up for consideration in the House, he submit for approval a job-killing "free trade" agreement that he negotiated with South Korea.  No where for Obama to go on this one; Old Nick's coming to collect his due now.  This jobs bill, at least its potentially helpful bits, is dead.

So it's more than a little disappointing to me that organized labor has been a little slow in seeing the light.  Earlier this year, in conjunction with the events surrounding Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's attempts to crush public workers unions, heavy hitters like Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, were making encouraging noises about a renewed vision of the labor movement independent of compromised empty suits like Obama.  Yet once again they swallowed hard when Obama handed them this sh*t sandwhich of a jobs bill too small and too reliant upon long-disproven free market tropes like the Laffer curve and regulatory disincentive hyptothesis.

I'm glad that unions have started to make solid, practical contributions toward the Occupy movement--like the New York Transit Workers Union's refusal to be co-opted into busing NYPD detainees.  But if they want to make a true difference, display some deeper understanding of Occupy's significance, they're going to have to directly confront Obama.  Either with a primary challenger, as proposed by Cornell West and Ralph Nader, or a potential third party candidacy, as Dylan Ratigan is reported to be mulling.


  1. ...well said..all of it

  2. I agree whole heatedly. Planning on participating in a local occupy event on Friday, and the main thing I hear is 'Those people are stupid and have no program.' Why do you have to have a a ten point plan complete with bullet points and figure heads before you can say something is wrong? Why can't you say something is wrong, even as you're still discussing what should replace it.

  3. being from the UK the Occupy movement would be the only import from the US i would welcome right now, well said that man!