When truth is too weak to prevail, it must go on the attack.
— Bertold Brecht, Life of Galileo
Of course, the ultimate outcome of the Occupy Wall Street struggle will depend on the popular energy propelling it, which depends in turn on the breath and depth of our aspirations, on our hunger for a better world. Viewed as a beginning (humble yet promising), the logic of Occupy Wall Street is radical, in the sense of not contenting itself with addressing mere symptoms, but seeking to uproot the ultimate sources of social misery against which it is reacting. Comparison with the beginnings of other episodes in world history in which masses of people raised up to direct the course of history is appropriate.
Yes, it is a baby — and as it often happens with babies, we project in them our own aspirations, fascinated by the scope of human possibilities, by the promises that they embody. But this baby has already exhibited a measure of energy and commitment that presages endurance and effects beyond its humble beginnings. Taken at face value, Occupy Wall Street originates as an attempt to rebuild social life from its foundations. As a result, it is heading into a direct and total clash with the status quo. It raises immediately the question of political power: Who is in charge, who rules society, who directs the course of social life. And the movement appears to have an instinctive understanding of the ultimate nature of political power.
Superficially, we view political power as the ability of an individual, group, or social class to set up the laws and policies of the land, and then enforce them. Political power appears as the ability of the rulers to make others obey or conform, if not willfully consent. Clearly, a social order is most stable when people consent to it, when they conform without being forced or induced to act against their own will. Outright manifestations of political power are required when people are not willing to act as the social order dictates.
But the ability of the rulers to write and pass laws, and then have them enforced — in a phrase, their ability to organize the political and legal life of a society — depends on their ability to effectively command and deploy actual economic resources. Since, as Adam Smith suggested, the ultimate economic resource any society relies on is the conscious time of its individuals, then the organization and application of political power is in the last analysis a fierce battle for our hearts and minds. A battle that we wage as much in our interactions with others as we do introspectively.
How far are we personally willing to go to change our society? How much are we willing to risk? What sacrifices are we willing to endure? How fed up are we really? What compelling vision of our social life, in contrast with the existing social order can we imagine, and how vividly? How much human potential do we feel we are squandering as a result of our de-facto compromise with the current state of affairs — inequality, war-making, unemployment, an economy and a state ran amok?
We need that gut check. And, again, since this is a battle for hearts and minds, ours should be both a raw emotional appeal to the struggle and a sharp intellectual case against the status quo accompanied by the proposal of an alternative to it. In the actual world, our emotions and intellect are intermingled. But, at the end of the day, if we are to remain true to our humanity, the most compelling argument will be the rational one, the one that shows our respect to one another’s intelligence, to our desire for genuine freedom.
I will say one or two things about the emotional element. Whatever one’s net assessment of Steve Jobs’ life, his words here make our case:
Remembering you’re going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
While Jobs’ creativity and energy were admirable, it is hard to sleight the fact that when — as he did — we accept and reinforce a social order that pits us against one another, as we do when we pursue the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth (even if by developing well-engineered products — and there are certainly worse ways in which people accumulate wealth, as Halliburton’s Cheney or Goldman Sachs’ Blankfein demonstrate), we remain trapped by the vacuous compulsion to fill with things our existential voids. Crises, like the ongoing one, force us to confront the glaring fact that these voids can only be filled with meaningful relations with other human beings. Using private wealth to extract more wealth from others, using others as mere instruments to one’s end, and having the accumulation of things be such end, is a trap, a costly illusion — an illusion with deep social roots, but an illusion nonetheless. It is costly because it undermines the basis of all social life — cooperation. The only life worth living is that spent helping and being helped by others, directly, with no proxy in between; using things as means, but one another as ends. To that extent, Jobs was more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.
So James Carville was wrong. It is the economy, stupid, but only because “the economy” (i.e. our jobs, our income, our wealth, the stuff we acquire, etc.) acts as a poor substitute for social interactions that suck. However, if we go radical and demand the real thing rather than the phony one, and act to produce it, then: It is our social relations, stupid! What is it about the existing social relations that sucks? Well, they are not ours! Yes, we produce them and reproduce them, by action and omission, but they remain estranged from us — they escape our control as individuals and oppress us. The premises, processes, and results of our reproduction as a society become alien forces that degrade and crush our humanity. That is the main characteristic of our social life: Alienation!
But, human beings are problem-solving animals. We immediately problematize our condition. Not sooner we see the world as exists than we are already envisioning the world as we need it and want it. Our problem is to go from the world that exists to the world that we need and want. The problem, alienation, suggests its solution: Appropriation! We need our social life to be fully ours. We need the wealth that we produce to be a vehicle for the free development of our human powers. We need the social relations that we build to promote our freedom as individuals. We need a civic and economic life that is responsive to our needs, not a private profit-making machine that chews us up and despoils our natural environment under the protection of a political and military apparatus turned against us. We need our productive resources, those that nature has endowed us with and those we’ve produced historically (our physical productive infrastructure and we ourselves as producers), cared for and deployed to meet our needs. We need a social life of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is this promise, the opportunity to struggle for its realization, that Occupy Wall Street gives us. That is the basis of its ongoing success. If we can preserve and expand on that promise, in spite of the formidable obstacles to come, we will prevail.
To wrap things up, let me return to my suggestion above that, if the movement is to make any progress in rebuilding our social life, then it has to win the hearts and minds of people way beyond those originally involved in the protests. This relates to the issue of “demands.” At the current stage in the political cycle, there is very little evidence indicating that the political system is going to become genuinely sensitive to the needs and concerns of the 99%. But even if it were, it would be for the wrong reasons — to pacify us, to send us back to our routines, to perpetuate the social order. No, we don’t want back to business as usual. We are rejecting the social order.
Now, if we are indeed committed to the radical course, there is no way to avoid a clash with the political establishment. We cannot expect that the entrenched vested interests that give us wars, financial and economic crises, a corrupt political process, gaping inequality, environmental destruction, and mind-numbing propaganda will just fold and go home. But at this point, they may not consider us as a serious threat to their rule. That is fine. At this point, we are not talking to them — or, at least, they are not our main audience. We are mainly talking to one another. We are learning together how to build a different type of social relations, a different type of power. We want to involve more and more people, we want to be the 99% in motion, we want us all to think beyond the next political cycle — and act accordingly. To involve more and more people, we must retain the moral high ground and focus on strengthening our organization, self education, committed effort, and numbers.