The future of a civilization depends on our overcoming the meaninglessness and hopelessness which characterizes the thought of men today.
~ Albert Schweitzer
This Saturday, the Occupy Wall Street protests will be two weeks old.
Several days ago, I had written the start of a post I’d tentatively titled “Protesting: Ur Doin’ It Wrong,” centering on my frustration with the response of numerous supposed liberals to the protests, namely: sitting back on Twitter and/or blogs and mocking and tearing down the efforts of the OWS protesters. I left it as a draft, because I recognized that the subject had made me “hot” enough that the chance I would veer off into a feel-good (but ultimately pointless if not counterproductive) rant against those individuals who were reacting in this way was greatly increased. And I really wanted to get this critique right, and put it forth in the best possible light, because I think it’s a crucial issue. Unfortunately, as often happens when you have children, life wound up intervening and it slipped off my “front-burner list” of to-dos.
I haven’t stopped thinking about it, however, and today, another article came to my attention that caused my thinking to gel a bit further. The article was from Yves’ Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog, and it was by an Oakland, California guest-poster, entitled Protestors Disrupting Foreclosure Auctions in California:
…once the protest started to get going, the protesters would circle up around an auctioneer and start chanting so loudly that it was difficult for the auctioneer to be heard. In response, the auctioneers distributed themselves around the steps so that the protesters couldn’t stop all of them. The protesters broke up into a couple of groups, with each group attempting (and succeeding in some cases) in surrounding an auctioneer with chanting people. Electronic media devices were everywhere– people were pulling out phones and digital cameras and taking pictures. I even saw one of the bidders do a self-video with what looked like an Android phone– he showed the crowd then turned the phone on himself and gave a quick narration of the scene. The protesters were able to disrupt the sales enough that one person I took to be an auctioneer (due to his clip board and demeanor– I have been to more than a few courthouse step auctions) got on the phone and said that it was “getting rough” and he “need[ed] everyone here.”
The organizers of the protest (according to the article’s author), Make Banks Pay California, has no ties that I could see, covert or explicit, to the actions taking place on Wall Street since September 17. In fact, there is no mention whatsoever of that other coast’s actions. Reading this article, however, I cannot imagine any other left-ish activist or even just politically-inclined person NOT making a connection between the two apparently completely separate events. Why? Because of their similarity, obviously: both are focused on the problem of the banks having crashed our economy in the late 2000s, partly by uncontrolled and unwise speculation on poorly-understood derivatives and partly through gaming the housing market. We all – those of us who follow politics, anyway – know the story pretty well by now. While the OWS protests appear to be targeted (in a rather muddled fashion, it must be said) against the actual physical home of the major investment and retail banks who led the charge, the Alameda protest written about in this piece was clearly focused on the same underlying goal of organizing to raise public awareness around the culpability of the banks in our current fiscal mess, and the fact that the problems and weaknesses in our system they exploited to enable their feeding frenzy have not been addressed in nearly a thorough enough manner.
I won’t make this post unreadably long by entering into an explanation of the ways in which the banks were allowed to run wild and subsequently (mostly) let off the hook. There are plenty of places one can read such material, and my guess is that anyone reading this has probably read a good deal of that sort of factual explanation already and either agrees with it or rejects it. The important thing I realized is not that the banks need to be held accountable or at least restrained from doing similar things with other bubbles in the future. As I said, that’s glaringly obvious, and has been since 2008 if not before (if you listened to the right people back then). So the problem isn’t that these facts aren’t knowable, it’s that most regular (non-economist or non-political-junkie) people don’t know them, and the moment is starting to come to a head. That makes the problem one of organization and education. And that is what is starting to happen, almost organically, from necessity. Indeed, as another (excellent) recent article I read in England’s Guardian newspaper put it:
What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world’s financial architecture, when anything seemed possible.
Everything we’d been told for the last decade turned out to be a lie. Markets did not run themselves; creators of financial instruments were not infallible geniuses; and debts did not really need to be repaid – in fact, money itself was revealed to be a political instrument, trillions of dollars of which could be whisked in or out of existence overnight if governments or central banks required it. Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?”
It seemed the time had come to rethink everything: the very nature of markets, money, debt; to ask what an “economy” is actually for. This lasted perhaps two weeks. Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they’d been before.
That’s exactly it: the current situation is that “regular” people who aren’t economists and don’t follow politics in detail just know that things are bad. The economy’s been bad for a long time, and from what they know, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better any time soon. They, or their friends, may be “underwater” on their mortgages, or saddled with crushing student loan debt they can’t pay. They hear rumors or bits of stories from the media related second-hand about entire towns going bankrupt (or nearly so), about various other economic ills, and they look around and see pain and suffering (or at least insecurity) of a financial nature all around them in their own lives and communities, and they’re worried, pessimistic and angry. Faith in government institutions is at or near all-time low levels. Congress’ approval ratings are barely avoiding single digits. People want something done, they’re just discouraged about the possibility of any of the traditional means which have been historically used to address similar issues being able to work this time.
And that’s both a scary and an exhilarating place to be, because it means we’re on something of a knife-edge. The fact that two entirely-separate organizations came into being and began protesting at the exact same time on different coasts on virtually the same issue(s) shows that the frustration has at least a vague idea of how to tell the story and where to put the blame. But those of us who HAVE been paying attention need to recognize this moment, these spontaneous uprisings, for what they potentially are, and help fan this little spark/flame into the kind of “viral” conflagration that history shows us is always where real change comes from. Organizing is very hard in general, and it becomes more like an exercise in banging your head against a stone wall if the people you’re trying to organize aren’t aware of what you’re talking about, or if don’t understand (or don’t agree) it’s a problem. Or if they have to break free of preconceived notions that tell a different story than the one the organizers are trying to use as a base for action they hope will get results. When societal conditions are mostly good-ish, very few people think about (and even fewer advocate for) change. That’s easy to understand. I mean: why bother? But even when things are bad, much of the time, people just accept it. They get phlegmatic: “whattaya gonna do,” people shrug, and they try to find ways within their own lives and their own personal circles to mitigate the damage or the problem. That’s often true even when the problem’s causes are pretty clear, partly because not everyone’s paying attention, partly because there’s often numerous well-heeled interested parties who’ve got a personal stake in telling a different story, and also partly (largely) due to inertia. Getting “regular” people to start moving to DO something collective about the problems they all face but face individually – in short, organizing them – is one of the more difficult things there is to do. Often, organizers can toil away sixty, seventy hours a week to very little effect, if the “spark” that allows public consciousness to coalesce around an idea simply isn’t present.
Don’t get me wrong, the work that organizers do (myself included, sometimes) in the absence of such a “spark” is both helpful and necessary. Doing such work on an ongoing basis is something near-heroic in my personal pantheon, and the fact that there are those who (unlike myself) do it day in and day out means that the apparatus and the knowledge of how to do it survives, completely separately from whatever achievements such organizing manages to accomplish. But it is often difficult, thankless work even on a good day, and the change it can effect is that of identifying and maximizing support and working incrementally to enact typically small-bore measures which will make life better or perhaps simply keep it from getting worse. It is not the kind of “transformational change” that comes about only rarely, and only when conditions are right. Transformational changes are the rare pivot-points of history when things coalesce in a moment and there is a person or (usually) a group who can see the opportunity and are able to do what is necessary to effect change that actually changes the way ordinary people think about what is possible or what the shape of reality looks like. That kind of change can’t ever be forced, and often, the moment when it’s possible can’t even be predicted. In fact, a great many people do not even recognize such moments even while they are happening. The difference between the incremental change brought about through regular organizing and the kind of quantum leap possible through taking proper steps at an organically-occurring moment is the difference between evolution and revolution, between a step up the stairs (or, just as often, one step forward and at least one frustrating step back), and a rocket to the moon. Both are helpful. Both are necessary. Both are admirable goals to work towards. But the former is by far the more-common, everyday form of progress, while the latter is a once-in-a-generation (if even that frequent) opportunity.
That’s why the combination of that Guardian article and this Naked Capitalism article struck me like a lightning bolt: because it made me see that we are quite possibly entering such a moment right now. And as I said, it’s both exhilarating and a bit scary. Because the under-the-surface swell is definitely there. “Regular,” non-political people are angry and restless and all those other things I mentioned, in a way they haven’t genuinely been in quite some time (for good reason). The world (and America’s) fiscal situation is again entering crisis mode; we are poised for another disaster. If we, the people who have the best story to tell about how we got here, about who and what were responsible for these calamities, and who have the best idea(s) about where to go and what to do with this energy, fail to capitalize on this moment, then the risk is that the swell will get away from us, the energy will spin out of our ability to direct it, the pivot-point will pivot away from us. If that happens, and sentiments like those that animate the tea party – or worse – seize what should – and could – have been our moment, a great opportunity will have been lost.
That’s why I get so dispirited when I see fellow activists who I KNOW want essentially the same things sniping at one another. It’s bad enough that the corporate-owned media will almost certainly ignore the work of groups like Occupy Wall Street and Make Banks Pay California, and that (as Chris Hedges said) the power structure will define whatever those groups do as failure. If those few of us who profess to similar beliefs about the poisonous influence of Wall Street and banks in general over our economy and our political institutions actually join in the condemnation or mocking of the few of us willing to take the risks of being active, we’re certain to fail.
In his fantastic “secret history of the 20th century,” Lipstick Traces, author Greil Marcus recounts a bit of the history of the May 1968 general strikes that swept across Europe, particularly Prague and Paris. Marcus ferrets out a bit of the actual signage used by those young protesters who were desperate to seize their moment. They spoke not in the language of 60s protests where one uses the supplicative voice to make entreaties to entrenched power, but in the first person present, a voice that by definition isn’t planned in advance and might very well make mistakes or even fail (and knows it), but which has the benefit of insisting upon it’s own relevance and which might actually break the logjam and truly change at least a part of the world. Marcus points to the best and also shortest of the signage spotted in Paris in 1968. It read, in the most heartbreakingly self-aware language, simply: “Quick!“
Their moment ultimately failed, as most attempts to truly change the world instead of merely reform it usually do. If nothing else, let’s not look back and realize that by mocking instead of joining, we helped this moment, our own moment, pass unrealized. I sense there is a rare chance brewing for a do-over; to have the conversation we should have had in 2008 about what freedom in America means. About exactly how much these financial giants can own and control us. Adlai Stevenson knew the score years ago; maybe it’d be good to remember what he knew but we may have forgotten:
Freedom is not an ideal, it is not even a protection, if it means nothing more than freedom to stagnate, to live without dreams, to have no greater aim than a second car and another television set.
**UPDATE** dday has more on Make Banks Pay California