When we consider a society of grotesque economic contrasts, Paris, autumn, 1788, is a fine starting point. France had its own 99%–in fact, less than one half of one percent of the population belonged to a noble family. They sequestered themselves in large estates or the proverbial ivory tower. Imagine starving mobs roaming septic gutters desperate for breadcrumbs while the Royal Circle and its entitled entourage indulge in haute cuisine between languid positions on chaise lounges swilling Don Perignon, fluffing their powdered wigs now and then while quoting Voltaire ironically. Some twerpy duke with a peacock feather in his hat observes the gathering of the clouds and fidgets his painted fingernails with an ivory pick nervously. “Relax!” orders a marquis, belching through his third aperitif, “Don’t worry about the stupid peasants. Les imbeciles! History is on our side! This rabblerousing will be over by next summer!”It’s interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same. Although it was recently reported by the Census Bureau that nearly one in two Americans live just above or below the poverty line, you’d hardly notice this disturbing trend the way pop culture filters out the losers on television where we are treated to conspicuous consumption on a lavish scale, from reality TV to sitcoms featuring handsome, do-nothing bourgeois bores. In the real world, there is plenty of bling for those few who can afford it and no shortage of tasteless supermarket cake for those who can’t. Look, I’m not flippant enough to suggest that Kim Kardashian is our Marie Antoinette or that tactless founts of wealth like Michael Bloomberg or Donald Trump are our Louies. But the contrast of lifestyle capacities is too great to not stand some dire correction.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a loose confederacy of radicals, activists, and all-American downwardly mobile individuals seeking to implement that correction. It began on the 17th of September and seemed to peak (at least in newsworthiness) in mid-October with major confrontations in New York City, Oakland and elsewhere, tailing off the media radar precipitously following the eviction of occupiers in Zuccotti Park in early November. Notwithstanding Time Magazine naming its Man of the Year ‘The Protester’ it seems that the OWS movement as it is known by its colloquial shorthand has lost its momentum.
If the protesters are a collective Frankenstein monster then it is laissez-faire capitalism operating as the mad doctor that has loosed this fright upon the land.
But this is a false calm. Discontent in America is not going to go away by simply pretending it doesn’t exist. It may hibernate this winter, but in the spring thaw with the American economy unlikely to have improved by any measure and no comprehensive reforms enacted repairing a structurally flawed system, the protests will return this coming spring and summer. The ideas germinating from tents, zines, and blogs will shape the political conversation at the expense of those in power. The numbers of those petitioning and demonstrating for authentic change will grow spectacularly and they will not go quietly away, not when they have nothing left to lose. The system may strip a man of his job, savings, health care, and future but now it must deal with the consequences of this immoral appropriation when at last it confronts an army of individuals who have been stripped of everything, save dignity and self-respect.
Now I could be absolutely wrong. If this latest Black Friday was any indication, Americans can’t get enough distracting crap, whether its flat screen TVs, video game consoles, tablet devices, or toasters. And I may not be in a proper place to read the mood of the zeitgeist— I have been out of America since the protests began and have not been able to participate in the movement whatsoever. My views have been shaped by selective Internet literature, albeit a biased progressive reading list. But you don’t need a weatherman to feel the weather. Follow it long enough and you can see the patterns in place.What I find most mysterious about the OWS movement is that it’s taken this long to develop in the first place. The last decade has witnessed one scandal after another, everything from a presidency decided by an ideological supreme court to a tragic, expensive war trumped up with false evidence to a financial system rewarding the most reckless maneuvers. An atmosphere of permissive graft and corruption pervades Wall Street and Washington. That no one in power is punished and that for all the mockery of civic justice there is almost no reform demonstrates the great gulf between the power elite and the masses. They treat us with such contempt because they believe they can get away with it. That they have succeeded this long without a major pushback is incredible.
And if anything from the last three months is any indication, the politicians and the CEOs are out of their league. The brutal crackdown on non-violent protesters, cops pepper-spraying pretty twenty-year old women and baton-whacking jobless Iraq vets, lacks good PR, even if the boys being beaten have beards and the girls butch cuts. The average American, for all his ostensible moviegoing habits, doesn’t feel good when someone gets the billy club in the face and the blood on the screen is real.
The whole world is watching: the pointed accusation from the sixties has never been more relevant. You’d think they’d figured out that for every demonstration there are about two cameramen for each protester and that the bully shtick would go viral. Indifferent or just plain stupid, the powers-that-be seem surprisingly adept at manufacturing sympathetic martyrs.
Tomorrow’s protester knows no color or gender. Economic depravity is a mainstream problem that will lead to mainstream calls to action.
And many of those who have bravely stood their ground against aggressive police tactics only to have their heads cracked or spleen busted are exactly that: martyrs. Though that is not how they are presented by television analysts. They prefer to call the protesters shiftless losers, drug-addled degenerates, and homeless bums. They are right in some respects. Many of the protesters are losers, addicts, and derelicts. That this is so is indicative of the economic system that created them (they weren’t born that way). If the protesters are a collective Frankenstein monster then it is laissez-faire capitalism operating as the mad doctor that has loosed this fright upon the land.
But we cannot completely fault the cops for their actions. After all, they are taking orders from their bosses. Let’s be clear: we absolve the state to a degree when we call their work ‘police brutality.’ The men behind the curtain have sent out their ultimatums, conjuring this horrific atmosphere of ‘institutional violence.’ As it will go, the presidential candidates will appropriate the populist rhetoric in an insincere attempt to demonstrate they are agreeable to people power. Their oral flatulence will be especially hypocritical when contrasted with the inevitable crackdown on the streets.
The downwardly mobile, newly destitute man on the street is going to make it hard for gladhanding Republicans and Democrats to wax lyrically on the platitudes of that decaying, intangible artifact, American optimism. The old line of thought—that your life and livelihood will be better than your parents—has been outsourced to manufacturing centers in Mexico and Vietnam.
Protest is the latest, inevitable, and perhaps most necessary development of globalization. With the Internet liberalizing both restricted information and organizational infrastructure, those alienated by political and economic disenfranchisement feel a part of something rather apart from something. The media wants you to believe that protesting is a fringe activity, beneath the civic duty of good citizens. But it will be everyday people–not activists–that will make the difference.
What will come in the next decade will overshadow the sixties. Back then it was marginal groups—African Americans, peaceniks, gays, feminists, and indigenous Americans—challenging the deficiencies in the status quo. Tomorrow’s protester knows no color or gender. Economic depravity is a mainstream problem that will lead to mainstream calls to action.Civilization is alive. It is in constant motion, much like the tectonic plates of our planet pressed against each other, reaching a point of incredible pressure that can only be relieved with great upheaval. The social model as we live in it was born in 1989 with the triumph of free market capitalism over Soviet-style communism. Led by America’s privatization-happy formula, it had a good run but overreached itself. For those excluded from the winnings, it can seem all too unbelievable that civilization’s advances in humanitarian thought, economic theory, and multiple breakthroughs in science and technology have led us to this precipice? Is this the best we can do, Voltaire’s hypothetical best of all possible worlds?
The aftermath of the French Revolution led to a reign of terror, a power-mad demagogue, and a twenty-year war. The violence in Egypt and especially Libya, Syria, and Yemen are cautionary tales to governments resistant to progressive currents. It’s in the best of all of our interests to avoid the tragic disasters that befell these other places. When it reaches a point of no return, the U.S. government will have two options: it will have to acknowledge and implement much-needed reforms (i.e. a massive redistribution of wealth from corporations and the Billionaire’s Club to the State) or oversee a massive crackdown. This second option may be tempting for a government looking increasingly to China as the model of authoritarian free market capitalism. However, this Faustian bargain, while shoring up the status quo in the short term, would irreparably undermine American democracy for a long time, perhaps for all time.
Nothing is inevitable, but in a very near future, sides will be chosen. There is only one direction history can take if we are to believe that civilization is a slow march forward lighting the dark. We can only hope that those who will have to sacrifice to the greater good are cognizant of the tides of change and move with swift and good conscience.
About the Author
- Sean “Smiles” Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan, who contributes the bi-monthly Pop Zeitgeist column to HESO. His website of writing & photography is here.
Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.
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