Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Much Needed Red Ink

The most telling sign of OWS's reach and potential came, for me, last weekend. At a reunion comprised of mostly conservative military and former military servicemembers, no one mocked it. When one person did bring it up, it was to share a recent development in the story. Others responded by sharing their knowledge of other recent developments, but their comments were equally devoid of tone, not a trace of irony or disdain. It seemed to me that no one felt comfortable throwing out a jab, lest someone in the group felt strongly about the movement.

In recent months, only a handful of friends have asked my feelings on OWS, and they've each done so with the same kind of cautious inquiry, careful not to reveal their own feelings on the movement upfront. I'm willing to guess that I'm not the only one who has observed this kind of discreet ambivalence in discussions about the protests, which is fairly remarkable in our South Park/Family Guy/Jon Stewart era in which few cultural developments garner enough of an aura to remain off the table of derision or commendation, a sign that OWS has much more potential than perhaps we realize just yet. If it were meaningless to people, they would throw out opinions on it right and left. Instead, it seems that they're waiting to make a judgment, watching it closely and considering it very seriously.

Slovenian scholar Slavoj Zizek spoke to the OWS crowd in early October, and his comments shed some light on perhaps why such a radical movement has attracted widespread attention/consideration (even support?) from the "mainstream" and thus become a topic that requires such discretion in discussion. He can explain it better than I, so see below:

"...They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare...We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, 'Hey, look down!'

...So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: 'Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.' After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: 'Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.' This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink."

Even in the midst of the housing boom, even as our portfolios grew and our homes gained equity, I think we all had a niggling sense of the wrongness, or, at the very least, the fleeting nature, of the whole thing. But most of us have felt flummoxed, for some time now, by the mathematics of trickle down economics and corporate tax rates and rising deficits, but we also knew, just as the cat did in the cartoon, that the precipice was rapidly disappearing even as we ignored that fact. OWS has shored up its support by articulating that amorphous feeling of uncertainty that most of us have felt for while. It's given us the red ink.

But what makes it different from all the other players at the political economics table is that unlike just about every other political organization out there, it hasn't told us to reject one thing in favor of another. It hasn't made promises or shown us complicated formulas or complex economic theories. By not making any demands or pushing forth any kind of structured leadership, it hasn't given us a plan or a theory or an equation for success. In short, it hasn't told us to think logically. Instead, it's asked us to think with our guts. OWS has allowed us to validate that sense of uneasiness that pervaded us even in the good times, that sense that, somehow, our good fortune couldn't last because it was just that: good fortune. Not any kind of calculated effect of any economic policy. A kind of "there but for the grace of God go I." The OWS movement is the red ink that, hopefully, we can use to start to write a new plan - or, more likely, new plans - that take into account all the math and all economic theories but that are driven by a sense of balance and moderation that comes from the moral gut of our country.

But I don't know that that's the role of OWS. I think that's our role, the public's role. It's our turn to get involved, and I don't necessarily mean by camping in Zucotti Park. We all need to do what we can reasonably do. Some people's role will be camping out and protesting and running classes and raising awareness, but I know that that isn't my role. I can't camp out in the park, much as I admire those who do - not only because I have a job that I can't afford to lose but also because it's just too damn cold for me! But I like to think that I can be involved. I like to think that I can read and research and write and take political action in the coming months and years. I want to believe that I'll think and theorize and act and collaborate with others in other ways. Of course, this kind of selective involvement always runs the risk of thinking too small and enabling complacency or, worse, self-satisfaction.

In his speech, Zizek commended the protesters for bringing the world's attention to the problem of economic inequity perpetuated by the capitalist system, and he encouraged the protesters to be careful not to become complacent in their fight. He told protesters, "[T]he reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good."

I think part of the problem is that many of us "progressives" live exactly that kind of goodwill-here-and-there life. We DO think that we're doing our part my buying a few local veggies at the farmer's market, wearing TOMS shoes, growing a tomato plant or two on our back decks, buying  from local merchants. We've been told that every little bit helps, and so we've been pretty content to do just a little bit, here and there, when we can. I am certainly guilty of that kind of convenient participation. Of course, if we want to move forward with a truly different economic system, we'll need to reach beyond our own homes, beyond our own communities, perhaps. And that's the challenge.

Zizek finished his speech by noting the irony in the fact that, at this point in history, we can more easily imagine the end of the universe than the end of capitalism. He says, "In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." Isn't that something?

At the very least, I think the OWS movement has the power to make us question the capitalist system that we've all been raised to imagine as the only way. At most, it has the power to help us rewrite it. It's provided an invitation to our imaginations to think about alternatives. Of course, I think the reason that we're all so keen to see a list of demands or candidates come out of Zucotti Park is that we're not really sure what to do next - our economic imaginations are pretty rusty after all this time. But perhaps that red ink will prove useful in the coming months as we try to draft an idea.

*The full text of Zizek's speech can be found at the following link: Impose Magazine

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