Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Subtlety of Modern Protest. . . . .

A lot of criticism has been directed at the 'Occupy Movement' because of a supposed lack of focus. And indeed the goals of these protesters seem to be vague and unclear. But the lack of focus is not, I believe, a result of an absence of difficulties facing society, but rather I think it is a sign of the real depth and broad nature of the crisis. The people of Egypt put up with forty years of harsh and clear dictatorship and the real crisis in the Middle East only came when the price of bread (and a host of essential goods) suddenly became prohibitively expensive. The 1789 revolution in France saw a similar evolution; the lead up to the storming of the Bastille saw a serious draught and a dangerous shortage of bread in the country. Western democracies are not, at least for the moment, facing this kind of acute crisis. Arguably, we are suffering under the yoke of a kind of dictatorship that is the result of a corporate monopoly on the political system, but out democracies still have a kind of flexibility that states like Tunisia and Egypt did not possess. Protest against a rigid political state is relatively simply; people just call for a loosening up of basic democratic operations and an end to harsh repression. Protest against a flexible state in which power has spred its tentacles fairly evenly throughout society is a much tougher target.

You see, I think there are many people within the "Occupy Movement," as well as many of its sympathizers, who are not radical socialists. Rather, many of these folks simply know that something has gone terribly wrong with capitalism as they know it. Too much corporate control of our political agenda, huge profits for corporations while many can't make ends meet, a growing disparity between rich and poor, stagnating wages for a disappearing middle-class, ever decreasing citizen participation in the democratic process, and a globalizing economy that sets all countries into a race for the bottom: these are all genuine problems facing Western Democracies, and one can be cognizant of them without being rabidly anti-capitalist. However, the bigger problem is formulating a clear political response to these problems, and not just a political response, but one that will get people up off their couches after a hard day at work and ready to do something. You see, if millions of people can't afford to purchase bread for their children, it is not difficult to motivate them. But if your society is eroding slowly from the inside, people lack focus and tend to drift toward cynicism. It is a little like the slowly boiling frog analogy - if you boil the citizens of Western Capitalism slowly enough, they will lack the focus to protest their own gradual decline. And when people are slowly lossing their democratic rights, working more or less constantly just to make ends meet, and most importantly, all are declining more or less at an equal rate, it is very difficult to get them out on the street on-mass to demand that, for example, we have a fairer rate of taxation or that we remove the money from the political process.

The protests of the 'Occupy Movement' seem vague because the problems that we are facing are subtle in nature. Corporations have slowly infiltrated our system and taken control of it, all the while using the media to convince people that corporate control and a lack of corporate taxation are the primary roads to prosperity. As a result people begin to live in a state of cognitive dissonance, essentially believing two contradicting things at once. And this cognitive dissonance leads to a subtle kind of collective mental illness in which people become profoundly confused about the society in which they live - its power structures and its basic operations. People know that everyone should have access to healthcare, and that presidents of corporations shouldn't be earning tens of millions a years while they are putting people out of work and average people's salaries are stagnating. Meanwhile they have been continually plied, since infancy, with an ideology that tells them that the endless pursuit of money and profit are beneficial to all. In other words, the rich and the powerful have done everything in their power to make any solutions, short of radical socialism, seem pointless and/or impossible. And it is easy to bash "socialist" solutions amid a population that has been so effectively taught to equate anything vaguely socialist with Soviet repression.

Thus people are vague and confused. How do we stop CEOs from making fifty millon a year while simultaneously bankrupting the country and putting people out of work? How do we stop certain political parties being the exclusive representatives of a corporate ideology without fundamental change to our political system; changes that some believe will threaten the 'freedoms' we take for granted? How do we reform a legal system that profoundly favours those with money and power? How do we change the lives of hundreds of millions of people who have been raised on certain kinds of technologies and modern conveniences? It is easy to demand the ouster of a dictator who routinely has thousands of dissidents arrested and tortured. It is not so easy to demand the reform of a system which most people believe has many effective and admirable aspects but in which power has gradually infested all areas of social life and corrupted it like a widespread cancer.

This is why the "Occupy Movement" is so important - it is an attempt by a weary and troubled population to start a dialogue about some profound problems facing our society, problems which, if gone unchecked, will most assuredly destroy everything we hold dear. We ignore such protests at our peril - vague though they might be. There is no doubt that it will be a difficult dialogue because the ideology with which we are struggling is subtle and powerful and we, as a society, are becoming badly divided as the crisis looms. Such divisions are a customary part of a social crisis, but in a milieu of cognitive dissonance it is a difficult problem to navigate for many. But make no mistake, it must be navigated or the corporate power and ideology our present leaders represent, will rob us of everything we are.


doconnor said...

Great post.

Owen Gray said...

The frog in the pot analogy -- as is the case with so many of our contemporary problems -- is spot on.

The problem lies in sensitizing the voting public to the warming world in which we live.