Dispatches From Occupied Tucson: Week 1
So I'd been meaning to write something about Occupy Tucson for a little while now, and the hope was that I could blog some about it on a day by day basis. Turns out that hasn't really been possible. Between school and some clinical stuff I'm doing and the Occupation, I haven't had a lot of time to reflect on what it all means. Now that it's Friday and I have some free time before the working group meeting I need to attend this evening, I feel the need to let the theorist in my brain run wild for a little bit and there are a few things that have struck me that I'd like to make a note of. Here they are in no particular order.
1. The Distance Between Liberals, Progressives, and The Radical Left
Over the past 50 years or so, as conservatives have tacked slowly toward the reactionary right, it is a matter of historical fact that liberalism has seen prudent to follow that course as a matter of tactics. As the John Birch Society and Tent Revival style economic and culturally reactionary positions, harking back more or less to England under Cromwell as much as anything, have found each other as useful allies, it has been expedient for liberal politics to distance itself from the more radical tendencies of the left. This began with the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s in full force after the extrem failure of Jimmy Carter, the last liberal president, to make a good case for liberalism in American politics. In the generation of political operatives that emerged from the 1970s, liberalism took two drastically different tactics resulting in divergent views within the Democratic party and giving great strength to the minority of conservative democrats who were slowly but surely being drawn into the moderate stream of the GOP even as liberal republicans were fleeing for mainstream democrat territory. The result was that mainstream political discourse has steadily become bunched up around a series of positions that are center-right and where the largest gravitational force by an organized political body from the right. The other branch of liberalism attempted to chart a middle course between the Radical Left and the position where the New Democrats were staking out their position in groups like the business friendly Democratic Leadership Council, and established what is now widely viewed as the "left wing" of the democratic party in modern progressivism. The old school of liberal democrats who followed on the traditional Labor and Civil Rights version of liberalism that held sway from FDR to Lyndon Johnson, has largely died out at this point. Their last true leaders in the US Senate were Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy, both of whom were replaced by strongly conservative Republicans in recent years, and a smattering of Old Liberal political groups like the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO are all that really remains of that particular strain of center-left politics in the United States.
But more importantly, as the New Democrats followed the GOP to the right, and the Progressives continued on in their desire to co-mingle left-wing ideals with the emerging rightwing Realpolitik, ever greater gaps in discourse emerged between the pro-free trade views in the center, the weak Keynesian views of the Progressives, and the various Marxisms and Anarchisms of the Radical Left. Over the course of thirty or so years, the left has factionalized to a great degree and simply stopped talking to each other. The end result is that while Progressives and New Democrats still find themselves able to communicate and cooperate, largely due to the efforts of the Progressives to keep liberalism alive in the democratic party, and at the same time Progressives are able to see eye to eye with Greens, social democrats, strong Keynesians, and Trade Unionists on the left, there has been emerging a stronger tendency in the Radical Left that has never been brought in from the cold. Here the democratic Socialists, the Industrial Unionists, the Anarchists, the Communists, and the various Marxists of all stripes have remained in vague but disconnected awareness of each other, but fully out of the mainstream of American political discourse. As a result the vocabulary and understandings of the Radical Left have diverged into a new language that makes sense in that particular sub-culture, but which is alienating to the center and left who might otherwise have been in closer allegiance. More problematically, the radical left in engaging and adopting various factional representations of Identity Politics in their midst have made the traditional liberte, egalite, fraternite style liberals uncomfortable with the level of deference to group identity issues and left affronted by the demands of a vehemently anti-heirarchical, grievance based political language developed in an environment where such deference was a given.
As a result, as the Occupy movement continues in a vein that draws in all aspects of the splintered liberalism of American politics, there are inevitable conflicts. There are people who take issue with people speaking in a certain way or acting in a certain way, and counter reactions based on the perceived unreasonableness of those taking issue. There are disputes over how to speak about things and what the right way to frame a political critique is. While we all agree that making our voices heard is important, it is the vague and open way that individual voices are being supported in speaking that allows that. It is a neutral etiquette that for the most part allows us to walk past our differences in a very pragmatic (and quintessentially American, even among the anti-statists) way. To be sure there are still conflicts and often times it takes a lot of talking and explaining and neutral thirdparty peacekeeping to move past what appear on the surface to be very minor problems. But in the end, if it does nothing else, the Occupy movement has the left talking to each other again in a way that we haven't since the Second Red Scare made Marxists pariahs among the American Left in the aftermath of World War II.
2. The Danger of Personalizing the Struggle
It's not far between the word struggle and kampf, and along with that linguistic association comes the old specter that the Left in all its forms is an invitation to walk smiling down the garden path of National Socialism. This is an old boondoggle on the Right that with any luck might finally die out in another generation, but for now we're stuck with it. "Look, it has the word Socialism right there in the title," say the reactionaries and conservatives who are opposed to the radical egalitarianism of the left. And that it does. Of course, the other half of the title is National, meaning "Nationalism" a distinctly right wing view point that those on the right are entirely tolerant of if they do not embrace it outright. And the left has always been internationalist in outlook, although it has failed to demonize Nationalism so effectively as the jingoists of the right have demonized Internationalism with their New World Order conspiracy theories.
So successful has the right been in that venture, for that matter, that among the less aware elements of the left, bits and pieces of the New World Order fantasy have on occasion leaked into our own discourse. Of course, we are always the first to deny that this involves any of the anti-semitism that lies of the root of right wing paranoia about internationalism, but nevertheless it is only a few steps from a mainstream progressive like Ed Schultz condemning as a group the "banksters" on wall street to reattaching the always unspoken rightwing predicate and condemning instead "Jewish Bankers." This also is an unfortunate side-effect of the dismal relations between Marxists and American left over the past half-century, because the Marxist analysis inoculates the left from that danger in noting that the problems with capitalism are structural, not personal. It doesn't matter who is empowered by the capitalist economy, what matters is that someone is empowered, and that fortunate few will always be positioned as exploiters with relation to the rest of us. It is not that certain CEOs and investment bankers need prosecution for their crimes, lies, and vicissitudes; although certainly some do. But rather it is that there is a systemic need to reign in the exploitation of the masses by the owners of society, and until that is accomplished we will all always already be victims of systemic economic injustice. There is a sense in which even the bourgeoisie are victims of the system because they too lack the freedom to make the kinds of choices that we all need the freedom to make in our participation in society. They are as much slaves to the machine as any of us. They're just much happier about it because they've been lucky enough to avoid the most oppressive effects of systemic injustice and have been greater benefited by that oppression than most. They are not themselves oppressors, however, and it is dangerous to think of them as such, because that way lies the real danger of a sort of proletarian nationalism that can easily give rise to scape-goating and zealotry. And such motivations rarely, if ever, lead to just ends.
3. Peace, My People, Salaam Shalom
Egos. Egos everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I often feel the need to take a step back and take a breath after seeing so many egos on display.
I am not much of a voyeur by nature. I like the occasional bit of tease and titillation, to be sure, but for the most part I'd rather be in the thick of it than outside looking in. And yet, voyeurism has as its essential counterpart exhibitionism, and where the exhibitionist reigns free we all may be forced into a greater level of voyeurism than we are comfortable with. This is equally true of the exhibitionism of the ego that often emerges as attention-seeking behavior in large and largely uncoordinated groups.
I have seen a lot of it. Probably too much. And I wish it were more avoidable, but where participation in the process is at a premium, as it is with the Occupy movement, it's difficult to look away all the time. This is to say, of course, that there are people around Occupy Tucson who seem more interested in presenting themselves to the world and airing their grievances and life stories publicly than they are in accomplishing anything useful. This of course gives rise to conflicts and confrontational personalities, and the end result is everyone wasting their time watching a train wreck and being extremely uncomfortable about it but unable to get away.
This behavior takes on many forms, and I will not list any of them that I've seen around the Occupy Tucson gathering because that just gives these people more of what they want and encourages their anti-social behavior. I don't wish to do that. What I will suggest is that the best strategy with dealing with these people, as I've discovered over the past few days, is to just shut up, let them have their say, and wait for them to get tired of talking to themselves. At this point, if they stand there seething at you, I've found effective a simple statement that "I respect what you have to say, I disagree with it but I don't want to argue about it. You're making me uncomfortable. Please walk away from me." And then if they don't, walk away from them.
I find this lesson to have been invaluable and I'm glad I learned it.
The important thing to recognize here is that oftentimes these people are very used to taking advantage of other people politely putting up with them. I'm not saying you should stop being polite, but rather you should recognize that you have a right not to be accosted by people and have your time wasted by them. What they are doing is rude and it is not rude to point out that to them and taking action to defend yourself. It's a lesson that I wish I had learned a long time ago, but better late than never.
That's all I have to say for now, and while I know I've been bitching for the most part in this post, I don't want that to detract from what's been a truly amazing experience that I hope will continue. I am encouraged and hopeful after my participation to date in a way that I have not been in a very long time, and I feel now like things I didn't consider possible in the past may be within reach of the political process now. The Occupy Movement is slowly starting to move the needle in American politics, and if that is all that it does it will be wildly successful. It remains to be seen exactly what will come of all of this, but it has already done great things and the rest can only be better.