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Occupy Wall Street and my political apathy

November 15, 2011

Today, I read John Remy’s blog post regarding his thoughts on Occupy Wall Street. Over the past few days, I’ve been reading several posts at MetaFilter on OWS — one that has gotten over a thousand comments regarding the NYPD’s clearout of Zuccotti Park earlier this morning as well as one related to a Matt Taibbi Rolling Stone article: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the OWS protests.

For the most part, I feel I understand the basics of Occupy Wall Street. I’ve seen the graphs and charts of income inequality by the quintiles…I’ve seen the charts showing how, as corporate profits and executive compensation soars to never-before-seen heights, average worker pay barely hold constant when adjusted for inflation.

I understand that we have a political system where politicians are coopted and regulatory agencies are captured by corporate interests. I understand that even when we’re voting for the other party, we find that much of the same stuff happens, because neither major party is immune from co-option and capture.

Quite frankly, most of these points just make me politically apathetic, or politically nihilistic or defeatist. I feel that because the system is built around power and money in the way it is, it encourages the kinds of politicians who will perpetuate it. Those who would not won’t gain enough popularity, or they will be overtly or covertly sabotaged by the powers of the status quo.

So, about that Occupy Wall Street…

Like John Remy wrote, at first, it seemed pretty weird and ineffectual to me. I had similar suspicions as he did:

 I personally get excited at any signs of life in America’s normally apathetic citizenry, but have been confused and maybe a bit turned off by the festival atmosphere and the initial incoherence of the movement and its participants. We expect sound bytes: where’s the political platform that I can fit on a bumper sticker, or in a pithy, provocative tweet? Instead we get a cacophony of clashing, inarticulate opinions to the beat of drums and peace songs. And what the hell is this “We are the 99%” all about?

I’ve similarly seen many people complain that OWS doesn’t seem to have clear, actionable demands or plans to achieve those demands. Many people complain that OWS doesn’t elect leaders, and instead it relies upon chaotic and inefficient “consensus” decisionmaking.

Over the past few days, I’ve been learning some things about how these seemingly off-putting, foreign elements of Occupy Wall Street actually serve as their starkest innovations or divergences from the system currently in place. For example, as one MeFite, klangklangston, wrote:

So, one of the things that amuses me when I hear people, both here and in other media, complain about the vague and sometimes unfocused rhetoric from OWS et al. is that it often sounds like they’ve never had any interaction at all with actual local democracy, from city councils all the way down to anti-war groups.

I know I’ve bitched about it before, spending more time in a anti-Iraq Invasion group coming to a consensus about what toppings would be allowed on the pizzas than actually eating the pizzas. And serving on my housing co-op’s board meant a myriad of ridiculous complaints, from getting upset about other neighbors painting their doors to allaying fears about forcing all the black people out. A few months ago, I went to a local parks workshop and was caught between people wanting to put a basketball court and swimming pool on 30 square yards of grass and a couple who wanted a huge statue to Bukowski (“Will it drink wine and vomit?” “That’s a nasty rumor about him. He was frequently sober”).

But part of that is that most people really don’t have experience in autonomous government, don’t understand how things function, and don’t realize the vast amount of silliness that generally only requires a bit of patience to move beyond ‚ and that is magnified by using a consensus model for decision making. It truly does mean listening to everyone, even if their ideas are idiotic.

Another part of it is that people spend so much of their time in explicitly hierarchal organizations — mostly businesses — and so seeing these decision making processes bring out a lot of weird, ignorant judgment, fixating on the silly and ignoring both the serious results that can come of these assemblies, and the vast amounts of silliness and idiocy that come out in nearly every corporate meeting any company holds.

That elicited a response from another commenter, Miko (emphasis added):

If you only engage with any organization at the consumer end, you’ve been convinced that if it doesn’t have an elevator pitch with five fast bullet points it’s not worth listening to. Process has been all but lost, hidden behind a phalanx of PR reps and media managers. But this is exactly what it looks like – and should look like. Deliberative. Creative. Messy. Wrong sometimes. Flaky sometimes. Containing important gems.

These are but two quotes that drew my attention.

Yet, for me, personally, even if in ideology I recognize the value of this movement, and am slowly becoming to appreciate the methods as well…I feel that I still have too much to lose, so I understand that even if I’m in a stagnant state, and I could have a lot to gain from the success of OWS, there still is too much to lose.

…at the same time, I understand that the reason this is becoming more of a movement now is because many people increasingly don’t have as much to lose. And that’s the point. Corporate interests have tried to create a system where ordinary people don’t get that much (and usually not on purpose…it’s just that if you’re trying to maximize profits, then cutting labor costs, or moving labor offshore are pretty effective ways of doing that), but that they have just enough [and the hope of getting more] so that they will continue with their lives without protest (you need people to buy your products). The problem is that the various systems now are taking too much out of people and not offering much back to pacify them. People in support of the system can’t plausibly say, “Stop being bums and get a job,” because the point is that there aren’t (m)any jobs! Even if you go to school and do all the things you’re supposed to do, that doesn’t mean you’ll get a job. But even worse…even if you get a job, that doesn’t mean you’ll get a good job that can support you and your family, especially if, heaven forbid, one of you get sick. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to keep up even with inflation. Social mobility? Forget about that.

At this point, many of the people who oppose the Occupy Wall Street people (but who are not part of the “1%” themselves) end up coming up with increasingly depressing and weird counterarguments. They revel in the fact that the economic situation sucks. (“Yeah, life sucks and you don’t always get what you want. Deal with it.”) In other words, they don’t oppose the system, but they have accepted the system as just the way things are.

…I have to recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate to have the job that I have, but even that is precarious. I’d be deluded to say that the successes in my life have come purely because of me, or because of my “pulling myself up from my bootstraps.” The facts are that I’ve benefited from innumerable people who have been willing to help me. But things could easily have occurred differently, either through my own fault or through no fault of my own.

My dad has been hounding on me for years to read Bill Domhoff’s Who Rules America? I read a sample of it for Kindle for PC (unfortunately, the book doesn’t seem to be available for the actual Kindle, or else I would’ve bought it instead of downloading the sample). I guess I should’ve listened all of those years back instead of just getting to it now.


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  1. Will permalink

    I liked Thomas Sowell’s comments regarding the OWS movement as follows:

    The current Occupy Wall Street movement is the best illustration to date of what President Barack Obama’s America looks like. It is an America where the lawless, unaccomplished, ignorant and incompetent rule. It is an America where those who have sacrificed nothing pillage and destroy the lives of those who have sacrificed greatly.

    It is an America where history is rewritten to honor dictators, murderers and thieves. It is an America where violence, racism, hatred, class warfare and murder are all promoted as acceptable means of overturning the American civil society.

    It is an America where humans have been degraded to the level of animals: defecating in public, having sex in public, devoid of basic hygiene. It is an America where the basic tenets of a civil society, including faith, family, a free press and individual rights, have been rejected. It is an America where our founding documents have been shredded and, with them, every person’s guaranteed liberties.

    It is an America where, ultimately, great suffering will come to the American people, but the rulers like Obama, Michelle Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, liberal college professors, union bosses and other loyal liberal/Communist Party members will live in opulent splendor.

    It is the America that Obama and the Democratic Party have created with the willing assistance of the American media, Hollywood , unions, universities, the Communist Party of America, the Black Panthers and numerous anti-American
    foreign entities.

    Barack Obama has brought more destruction upon this country in four years than any other event in the history of our nation, but it is just the beginning of what he
    and his comrades are capable of.

  2. Will,

    That’s certainly an interesting view of OWS that Sowell has, but like much of what Sowell has to say about things, I don’t agree with much of it.

    For example, who rules America? This is a simple question to answer. It’s not Obama. It’s not the 99%. It’s a close network of economic power elites and especially corporate interests who do whatever they can to maximize their own profit.

    So what does Obama’s America look like? Well, since the same people are in charge who have always been in charge (big corporate interests), Obama’s America looks the same as Bush’s America, which looked the same as America has under every president since the military industrial complex has wed big corporate interests. The difference is that the economic climate now is such that many people don’t have anything to lose by opposing this system. This is a system that can’t be fixed through the standards political process, because it has (and more importantly, people are realizing that it has) been coopted by corporatist interests to the extent that you can’t get anything done. It doesn’t matter to vote, because Democrat or Republican, you’re basically going to get much of the same things.

    If you think that Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi (or, for that matter, any Republican counterparts that could oppose them) have any real power, then you’re not there yet. OWS is about realizing that whatever direction this country is going in, it’s not the politicians at the driver’s seat, because there’s someone else in control.

    …oh yeah, and if you’re talking about people living in “opulent splendor,” then I think you should look at people who, you know, are already living in “opulent splendor.” OWS is kinda upset at those people.

  3. That’s not by Thomas Sowell. I mean, he writes lots of things that I strongly disagree with, and some things that are pretty dumb sometimes, but he doesn’t generally write things that are lol stupid. It’s actually a letter to the editor of a local paper by some random crank in Tennessee.

    • oh ho ho ho.

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