I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND the analogy to the American Autumn until I watched a recent Anonymous video: “Look around you, America,” drones a modulated female voice. “The leaves are beginning to sour. Cracks are appearing in them. They are falling from the branches, dead and rotting. So are our politicians. So are our banks. So is our media and so is our society.”
That America’s late-breaking resistance is likened to death and dying is hauntingly gratifying, and in response a people’s movement has bourgeoned, earning the Time magazine moniker of “The Return of the Silent Majority.” With Occupy Wall Street now in its fourth week, debates in mainstream media, independent media, and social networking platforms rage on about its ultimate importance and overall intent. Amidst the din emerges the question of the value of personal redemption in the effort to change a social system, a question that was also posed by revolutionary thinkers of years past. John Adams claimed the American Revolution happened first in the minds of the colonists, and Susan Sontag and Alice Walker each argued in favor of the subjective value of radical social protest. Certainly OWS has allowed the support and the space for participating people to explore their interiors, but the question remains as to whether these interior reflections will actually lead to substantial concrete actions on a large enough scale to draw power away from banks and large global corporations.
Among OWS enthusiasts, these are the three perspectives I see as most prevalent:
* There are those who want to see the protests harness their raw power to influence politics and government policy. Some of these people want to see the banks and the government divorce completely, which would require a clearing out of corruption, while others want to see the protesters use their influential noise as leverage to influence Congressional action, but don’t seem to be calling for changes in the structure of how the government works.
* There are those who feel that the protest and networking processes happening are empowering enough to justify keeping them going indefinitely. These are the people who don’t want to make demands because they would then be absorbed into a master dialogue, and they don’t want to see the current conversation end; instead they seem to aspire to a culture of more or less permanent protest for the foreseeable future, presumably as a way to secure space to work out new social methods and infrastructure with each other.
* Finally, there are those who have long favored an organic worldwide conclusion to global capitalism and its replacement with an anarchist-type direct democracy, and some of these folks see the Occupy Wall Street movement as potential means and impetus to realize this vision. Here there seems to be some cross over with Ron Paul supporters in their wish to live in a society without a centralized form of power and control.
These are certainly not definitive nor divisive categories, and I find myself veering wildly amongst them. I voraciously argued with a good friend about the uselessness of working within the established system, sparring with technocrats, and laboring to enact policy that would extract taxes from the wealthy and give the poor and middle classes a bigger piece of the pie, mainly because I have seen precious little evidence that this procedure has been effective at implementing leftist agendas or ideas. A few nights later I just as adamantly agreed with someone who said that Congress is currently considering a piece of legislation about a minor corporate fee and we will be able to thank OWS if it gets passed. I’ve hotly defended the leaderless non-hierarchical consensus based model being used in general assembly at Wall Street and beyond, but I also agreed when Slovaj Zizek said Sunday that this would not be a sufficient model for the large scale decisions that will need to be made about the future of the planet in the near future.
Intellectually inconsistent? Probably, yes. But I’ve always been more interested in complexity, conversation, and layers, even if they contain contradictions, than I have been in simplifying and reducing to reach absolute uniformity of thought. Plus, I have Baudrillard brain right now, am all day long filled with his long paradoxical sentences. In a twist of irony, I am teaching Simulacra and Simulations, a text I have always wanted to teach, right at the moment when its comments on work and protest seem to be simultaneously dated, excruciatingly contemporary, and eerily prescient:
“The scenario of work is there to conceal the fact that the work-real, the production-real has disappeared. And for that matter so has the strike-real too, which is no longer a stoppage of work, but its alternative pole in the ritual of the social calendar. It is as if everyone has “occupied” their work place or work post, after declaring the strike, and resumed production, as is the custom in a “self-managed” job, in exactly the same terms as before, by declaring themselves (and virtually being) in a state of permanent strike.”
He actually uses the word occupied, but the larger point is that for many of the OWS protesters, they have no “work time” by which to measure their strike time, nor any scenario of production to return to after the strike has occurred. (One student wrote that simulation was good for people because it gave them a routine and something to believe in, and even if it was false, it was better than the devastating effects of long-term unemployment on society; sadly, I saw her point quite clearly.) Baudrillard also heralds the state of “permanent strike” that seems to quite clearly forecast the sentiment of “Occupy Everything All of the Time.”
As a literary artist primarily interested in pataphysics, the uncanny, the weird, the aesthetics of truth, and the place where fact and fiction meet, co-mingle, and borrow freely from one another, inconsistency is a tool I have purposefully used to create confusion, an aesthetic motif that reflected the murky confusion of the ’00s and brought the careful reader to a heightened awareness of how signs and signals were being used and scrambled within a text. Baudrillard understood that most of our communication is stimulated and transmitted through signs now, so attempts to fight “truth” are conceptually doomed at the onset. As such, Adbusters and Anonymous are exactly my cup of tea, and I have been absolutely delighted to see pranking, culture-jamming and sign-scrambling used to such high cultural effects in recent weeks.
I started this essay in a moment of nervous weariness, but I’m finishing it after Mayor Bloomberg ceded the park to the protesters this morning, and now I feel another swell of awesome optimism. We have seen, within the last three weeks, a protest movement with more promise and more potential than any I’ve ever seen move in, set up, be ignored, explode in numbers and importance, bear the brunt of police aggression and painful crowd control tactics, gain media attention, become fashionable, and spread to many corners of the earth. This week the usual attempts at cooption begin. Concessions are coming from Conservatives, mainstream media, and of course the banks themselves. Liberal superstars are given air time on major networks. OWS protestors show up on YouTube to tell FOX news reporters where to stick it and have been given network air time to eviscerate the shoddy rhetoric of talking heads.
Artists, romantics, and idealists such as myself love, revere, even live for that moment of fissure in society, the loud crack that was just heard round the world as so many Americans went to their computers, saw a very different reality than what was propagated by the mainstream media, and woke up. In that moment, the media failed, we began to rely on comments, chats, photos, and videos that were wildly circulated at a frenzied pace. Perhaps this outcry was inevitable after decades of grim efficiency (so much simulation, so little time), so many years of grin-and-bear-it. The movement that many hoped for seems to have finally arrived, but after the swell of euphoria and hope, the question remains; how, what, will we decide to do next, how will we each reimagine ourselves and each other?
Sea change. I have personally spent the last several years constructing a view of cautious and careful pessimism and oppositional thinking. It’s a safe place to be. You’re usually right when you don’t expect too much, and thinking against everyone else provides plenty of material for the brain to work on even in the most dismal of ideological times. I believed in Baudrillard that we were simulating it all – work, life and protest too: I spent my 20s in New York City working for the Nader campaign and protesting Middle Eastern invasions, and in that time I was sleepwalking. We were put in cages and told we could protest. What I saw as magical thinking persisted for many, but the idea that Resistance is Futile is something I internalized on the night Bush was re-elected. I dropped out of activism. I turned inward. I started a literary journal dedicated to the art of decay, misperception, and bewilderment.
During the first few weeks of watching the protesters march, participate in carnival, and assert their anti-corporate and post-political views, I was instantly taken back to the fervor of the Nader days (Democrats, Republicans, they’re all the same, they’re ALL THE SAME!). With this came flooding back my early love and hope for a people’s based movement that would replace the corporate and capitalist one that has done unspeakable harm to the planet and to generations of all living creatures. But now I also feel that underneath that larger social impetus is the urgent whisper of a hidden wish, the model for an individual mode of making sense of the world, a way of crackling through the dullest, sleepiest and most complacent times as well as the most passionately charged and energetic. The Gnostics understood the symbol of the cross to be a sharp intersection between time and space, the here and now, the omnipresent rebellion that finds its potential in every moment. Likewise, I recently began to understand in a very personal way what it means to say that a true revolution happens in your mind and in your heart.
“What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 – 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”
- John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, August 24, 1815 ~
Do you think any promise is to be found in the activities of young people today? This question is posed to Susan Sontag in her 1966 essay “What’s Happening in America.” Pointing to the establishment left’s predilection toward stigmatizing variation in political perspectives wherever they are found in the young, Sontag cites the same kid who embraces the marijuana and bisexuality of the left is also seen consuming the products or politics of the right. This “is seen as a contradiction, a kind of ethical fraud or intellectual weak-mindedness,” she writes, and quickly disregards the criticism as reductive and dated: “I don’t believe this to be so, no need for dismay if the kids don’t continue to pay the old dissenter-gods obeisance.”
Some of the earlier NYTimes coverage espoused precisely this preoccupation with the literal: In “Gunning for Wall Street, with Faulty Aim,” Ginia Bellafante focuses on a Joni Mitchell look alike topless dancer and the usual array of homeless nuts who show up at any public gathering. “The fakers, the slobs, and the merely flipped-out are plentiful among them,” as Sontag puts it, and in a claim stunning in its gross ignorance and over-simplicity, Bellafante also concludes with a quote from a baffled onlooker who bemoans that the protesting youth are using Apple computers to fight their cause against corporate corruption.
Sontag condemns this smearing of eclecticism: “it seems to me obtuse,” she writes, “though understandable, to patronize this new kind of radicalism, which is post-Freudian and post-Marxist. For this radicalism is as much of an experience as an idea. Without the personal experience, if one is looking in from the outside, it does look messy and almost pointless.”
Emphasis added. Sontag notes that there was controversy in 1966 about how bad things actually were, but today that isn’t really a matter of debate. From the politicians to the networks news, the party line is this: “These people have reason to be mad.” From there, the “few bad apples” argument is made: capitalism is good, but it just went through a bad phase. Yeah, a really bad phase: nearly everyone lost something in the crash and resulting recession: equity, savings, retirement funds, a job, or prospects for the future. Today we don’t have the luxury of pretending the economy will improve because the vast majority of us exist daily in conditions that are at least uncomfortable if not outright painful, and deep in our bones, many fear the worst is yet to come.
But the material reality of American and global inequality and suffering doesn’t preclude the possibility that participating in Occupy Wall Street, either in person or vicariously over the internet, is helping many individuals to have a personal experience that may prove to be quite socially valuable in ways that are difficult to measure from a quantitative perspective. Sontag notes that the white man is the cancer of the planet, the white man that has upset the ecological and social balance of the world. Though the kids may not prevail, she says, she believes them to be right in fighting this injustice, if for any reason, she notes, because in the process, a few of them might save their own souls. America is a fine country for inflaming people with this project, from Emerson and Thoreau, to Mailer and Burroughs, from John Cage to Judith and Julien Beck, she writes: Salvation becomes almost a mundane, inevitable goal when things are so bad, really intolerable.
Let’s repeat that for a moment. When things are so bad, really intolerable, what else can we do besides try to save our own souls? And it follows to ask, can such soul-cultivating lead to genuine community-building on a massive scale, or might we get stuck in another Baudrillardian nightmare of ongoing protest-process, pursuing the discourse of desire and mistaking it for Reality? How much of this movement is personal, and of that, how much is precious? And at the risk of too much Baudrillard, how much is … simluated? How many people are watching pictures on their internet as opposed to taking part in large urban uprisings? (Me, for one, though I hope to be in NYC on Oct. 15.)
Alice Walker’s 1966 essay “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” is a breathtaking exploration of the esoteric value of protesting even when the material gains are not as plentiful as the movement had hoped. At the time, Walker writes, the question of “what good” the Civil Rights movement had been was a conversation that was widely discussed in the press and in polite society. Of course, Walker notes, the movement no longer interested the white man “because he can afford to be uninterested.” And it was suggested, she writes, that because the movement gave black Americans precious little that they wanted materially, that perhaps they would have been better off asleep in their ignorance, unallied, unawakened.
“I do not think so,” she retorts. “If knowledge of my condition is all the freedom I get from a freedom movement, it is better than unawareness, forgottenness, and hopelessness, the existence that is like the existence of a beast. Man only truly lives by knowing; otherwise he simply performs, copying the daily habits of others, but conceiving nothing of his creative possibilities as a man, and accepting someone else’s superiority and his own misery.” Through the Civil Rights movement, she writes, “it was just six years ago that I began to be alive.”
Matt Stoller, former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, wrote on Sept 29 that “Occupy Wall Street is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest.” “Meaning is a fundamental human need,” he says. “The act of politicization, of building any movement, is based on individual, and then group self-confidence.” So we hope he’s right, and that this momentum can have trajectory from the internal individual to the external collective. We can see this, perhaps, in the effects of the 99% blog, which for a long time I stayed away from because I knew it would be sentimental and I would probably cry. Here the familiar American veneers of artifice and class posing vanish entirely, leaving in its place an outpouring of knowing. When I finally did check it out last week, I did cry, because it is sentimental, and because it is also a powerful survey of how people perceive themselves in their lives at this moment, the stories of people who are frank about their debt, their illnesses, their hopeless situations, the terror of not being able to provide for themselves and their families. This is not a short term situation to endure, but a long term reality that wears you down and fundamentally changes you as a person. What I didn’t expect was how viscerally I identified with them. And in that moment, I realized something about myself: that I had been carrying around no small amount of shame for being in a similar position: shackled with student loan debt, an artist’s aspirations, no health insurance, no children, no home, no security, no hope of having any of these marks of adulthood in the foreseeable future.
My husband and I, both 34, have also endured the strain of ongoing financial problems. We left New York City, our home of several years, right before the economy crashed, because we were priced out, and we moved upstate where we believed we could live more cheaply. It has been five years of constant and more or less fruitless job searching. I knew we were making a love match rather than a money match, and I knew we were pursuing our dreams rather than ’safer’ career routes, but neither of us could know how hard that would be or what it would mean in the current economic climate. Our conservative families told us our master’s degrees were luxuries we didn’t need, but the truth is that neither of us would be making a penny without those degrees. We work freelance jobs that can (and do) disappear at any time. There is no small amount of stress and depression that accompany this hand-to-mouth work situation.
We have no other debt besides student loan debt, but no assets either. We have no car and no health insurance and we struggle for grocery money. We have, in the past, chosen between groceries and rent, between groceries and utility bills. We work nights and weekends; we have stopped going out altogether and reduced our expenses to a skeleton budget. All this does is cause more stress, because pleasure becomes this thing we have to debate whether or not we can have on a regular basis. When we splurge, we feel guilty. When we go without, we feel deprived. We can’t afford to visit our families in other states and we miss them. I want to have a baby, but I can’t justify starting a family in this financial condition, even though my window of fertility closes a little more each year. I have started hiding out from my friends who are older and more established, or who have jobs in finance, or my family members who are well-established, because I feel we have little common ground with them and I sometimes feel we are not making it properly in adulthood.
The other 53% blog contains the stories of those who made it on their own and didn’t “ask for handouts.” To be clear, I don’t want any handouts. I just want the 60+ hours of work we each put in to cover our basic expenses. I worked hard to get even a contract position in a prestigious institution and I achieved it, but it is a different kind of sour grape to be within the ivory tower looking out, knowing the harsh economic conditions from which many people will never escape, and to which I myself could return to any time.
And while I was looking at this blog, this all somehow clicked. That since the days of Reagan, we have been scapegoating the poor and blaming them for all of society’s ills. And now that has spread to encompass new groups of people, so that the shaming extends to the unemployed, the laid off, the people whose industries have disappeared and are never coming back, the people who chose to study what interested them, the American masses have been taking the brunt of the blame for, as Herman Cain recently put it, “not being rich.” “Blame yourself,” he said, and the austerity cuts, which take away the funding for basic services that our taxes should pay for, send the same message. You’re cut out of the realm of the comfortable, with no hope of re-entry in your lifetime. For those whose grandparents lifted their parents out of poverty, and for those whose parents ushered them into a middle class childhood, this is pretty close to devastating, and I am sure I am far from the only person who has spent the last several years blaming myself for slipping into the working class despite the comfortable childhood and young adulthood I enjoyed.
“Before,” Walker writes, “there had seemed to be no real reason for struggling beyond the effort for daily bread. Now there was a chance that at that other that Jesus meant when he said we could not live by bread alone.”
I do not in any way mean to equate my experience to Walker’s; to do so would be incredibly disrespectful as I am comparably very privileged and I have not really suffered at all, just experienced prolonged discomfort. Nor can Occupy Wall Street fairly be compared to Civil Rights. But “knowing,” as she puts it, has already changed my perspective of myself and my situation so radically and so rapidly that I barely know how to process it. I’m looking my friends in the eye, for one. I want to see them instead of hiding from them. I’m feeling confident and bold, and hopeful. More than that, I feel loving. More than that, I’m interested in life again. I want to see what I can do in the world. For months I had been in an ugly cycle of work, earn and spend; I stayed home and used avoidance as my fallback technique. Now I am reading, thinking, revisiting old texts, exploring new ones. I want to meet new people and find out what they are thinking. I want to participate.
Part of what existence means to me is knowing the difference between what I am now and what I was then … It is being able to tell when I am being wronged and by whom … To know is to exist: to exist is to be involved, to move about, to see the world with my own eyes.
Walker emphasizes the affirmation of humanity, and indeed I think one of the most valuable potential aspects of this OWS movement is the realization that just because we are poor or struggling doesn’t mean we can’t have dignity and even power of a sort in our collective efforts. Of course, with the emphasis on where the campers are relieving themselves, the mainstream media does its damndest to erode dignity wherever it can, but it can’t erase what has already transpired among the protestors and their online supporters. We want societies that benefit from the fruits of our labors and reflect the lively multiplicity of our brains and bodies. We work and see no results; we want our work to have value and to produce objects and services that benefit us, not to see it evaporate into the pockets of the 1%. We want cultures that evaluate and appreciate more than money and finance, use and efficiency, function and productivity. In short, we want to be human.
This much is evident from the discussions and literature surrounding OWS. Megan McArdle in the Atlantic writes about the sneering entitlement issues of the 99% bloggers, while other Conservative bloggers insist that finance jobs still pay a lot of money and that frustrated people should simply choose a new career path. The bad faith expressed in these statements is staggering, and the truth that isn’t spoken is that we don’t need to stuff everyone into the categories of finance employee or impoverished citizen. What some OWS protestors dream of is changing the master dialogue to reflect a set of priorities and ideals that revolve around life rather than around corporate profit. “The task of our time is to turn this around: to challenge this false scarcity,” Naomi Klein said last week. “To insist that we can afford to build a decent, inclusive society—while at the same time, respect the real limits to what the earth can take … I am talking about changing the underlying values that govern our society. That is hard to fit into a single media-friendly demand, and it’s also hard to figure out how to do it. But it is no less urgent for being difficult.”
Again, emphasis added. I have heard condescending sentiments leaking from my more privileged and comfortable friends about Occupy Wall Street. About how since the US is so corrupt, and has caused so much global suffering, that any effort at this point is doomed and futile: too little, too late. About how you can’t govern a country of 300 million people via direct democracy, so let’s stop “fetishisizing” process and open up conversations about concrete demands. Hipsters hell-bent on clinging to their snarky and detached demeanors write that they would rather occupy their bag of potato chips, and giggle at the word play even as they are rapidly turning into relics.
My numbers-oriented friends have policy on the brain. They are understandably interested in how these protests will provide political clout and sway. These are the ones who want to work within the system. They want Congress to be distracted by the noise enough to make changes to its own process. Krugman initially took this perspective (though in his more recent column he went a step further and denounced America’s oligarchs). I continue to be a bit mystified by this perspective, given how spectacularly unsuccessful working within the system has proved to be for the left for the last several decades. Global capitalism has only strengthened. Conditions for the poor have gotten worse. The working class isn’t working. The middle class is being eroded and seems likely to be wiped out almost altogether. It is blatantly apparent that allegiances between Wall Street and Washington render the government arguably insolvent. If it takes anarchist camps popping up all over America just to get your Congressman to vote in your best interest, I would say that is an untenable system that needs more than a slight tweak of reformation.
A tech-networked leaderless movement represents not a policy change but a major behavioral shift whose implications cannot be assessed until more time has passed. While a vision of global anarchic direct democracy seems far-fetched, I personally suspect we need their perspective, their vision, and their unyielding obduracy to make this moment possible and to keep pulling the center back towards the left. The striving for utopia is often to said to be more important than the goal of reaching it, but again, regardless of the value of “protest-process,” the radicalism of anarchist ideas have fostered the conditions for Occupy Everything to transpire. As Todd Gitlin wrote in “The Left Declares Its Independence” (in last week’s New York Times): “The culture of anarchy is right about this: The corporate rich — those ostensible “job creators” who somehow haven’t gotten around to creating jobs — rule the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party as well, having artfully arranged a mutual back-scratching society to enrich themselves. A refusal to compromise with this system, defined by its hierarchies of power and money, would be the current moment of anarchy’s great, lasting contribution.”
And yet we know, don’t we, that the 1% are not likely to hand over the keys to the kingdom, that the government or fundamentalist right could and may use force to try to crush the movement at any time, that things are much more likely to get much worse than they are to get better for most people all around the world. We know that performance, carnival, ritual, and anarchist practice shake things up, create spaces for dialogue and reinvention, but are not likely to be sustainable long term large scale social models. So what good is it, all the manpower and media attention being poured in the direction of OWS? What can you do besides save your own soul?
The answer right now seems to be this: Attack the Big Other in any way you can, using every tool at your disposal. The reason this is such an urgent movement is not just because of the momentum, not just because of the feel-good aspects of blowing off steam and getting angry together, or even because of the pleasure of rediscovering community either online or in-person, ideological or physical, but because we finally decided to attack the root rather than the branches, the disease rather than the symptom. Focusing on problem solving and putting out the fires led to thwarted efforts and stunted actions. Adams says that the revolution happened in people’s hearts and the war was just a necessary after-product. Is that’s what’s happening now? Are we internally changing our own underlying values to outgrow the idea of money and corporate capitalist profit as the highest good? If this happens from within, in a profound and very real way, can it then happen materially as well?
The American Revolution seems to me less of a relevant historical precedent than the fall of the Catholic Church in Europe, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment and Age of Reason. The Church had great power through the Middle Ages and used mysticism to absolutely control its constituents and to rule politics and economics, a rule that ended due to a network of material circumstances including overgrowth, but largely through pure erosion due to the counter-ideology of Protestantism. As people realized that the Church’s power was an illusion and that they were in fact already free to communicate with God directly and amongst themselves, by around 1600, the Church had lost followers, land, and much of its financial, economic, and spiritual power.
I’m intrigued by this analogy, as capitalism has been married with religion in America from its inception, and oligarchy capitalism’s defenders have a similarly mystical view of its inherent value as a social system. Today, of course, we have much more access to information and much more knowledge and perspective about our condition, so it is harder for the controlling forces to hide actual conditions from the people. This combined with widespread hardship seems to be evoking consciousness-raising on a massive scale: “The protesters in Zuccotti Park seem to have heralded the membership of a significant portion of our population into a new form of Third World, a development that our media and government appear to have been the last to absorb,” wrote Michael Greenberg in NYReview of Books. Impoverished conditions have always existed in America, but as they grow because of economic downturn, they do so alongside of the transparency offered by the Internet and the cumulated knowledge of decades of activist experience in which we learned all about what hasn’t worked in protest efforts.
For now, it’s important to stay focused, I think, on the idea that 1% can only have the lifestyle they have because the working classes literally provide it for them with their bodies and their labor. No one is more aware of this than Howard Zinn, and his massive contribution to American consciousness seems to me to be another piece of this puzzle. Zinn, before he died, gave us knowledge that may literally contain solutions:
“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own,” he wrote. “ Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.… My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on the other victims.”
Zinn was able to show, through primary documents such as letters, journals, and legal documentations, the brutal intentionality with which the race lines were drawn in America, deliberate diversions instilled to make poor whites feel just a bit superior to blacks, just enough to keep them divided:
“With the problem of Indian hostility, and the danger of slave revolts, the colonial elite had to consider the class anger of poor whites – servants, tenants, the city poor, the propertyless, the taxpayer, the soldier and sailor. As the colonies passed their hundredth year and went into the middle of the 1700s, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as violence and the threat of violence increased, the problem of control became more serious… What if these different despised groups – the Indians, the slaves, the poor whites – should combine? Even before there were so many blacks, in the seventeenth century, there was, as Abbot Smith puts it, ‘a lively fear that servants would join with Negroes or Indians to overcome the small number of masters.’
… The white rulers of the Carolinas seemed to be conscious of the need for a policy, as one of them put it, ‘to make Indians & Negroes a checque upon each other lest by their Vastly Superior Numbers we should be crushed by one or the other.’ And so laws were passed prohibiting free blacks from traveling in Indian country. …treatises with Indian tribes contained clauses requiring the return of fugitive slaves. [writers note: Interracial marriage was also made illegal around this time.] Governor Lyttletown of South Carolina wrote in 1738: “It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them [Indians] to Negroes.”
Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.”
All emphasis added. Racism was practical to allow the ruling classes to attain and protect their wealth, just like classicism is today’s practical solution to keep us divided. So the genie is out of the bottle; no one can take that knowledge away from us collectively, as a nation, and now that we have it, what are we going to do with it? I mention this because corporate greed isn’t the only “root” problem that needs to be addressed in this country. While it’s true that instituitalized racism, which leads to poverty and the economic hardships that OWS is fighting against, is itself a symptom of primary allegiance to American capitalism; while it’s true that adding extra elements to the 99% message might create PR confusion right now; and while I am not under any illusions that true egalitarian utopia can be materially realized, my personal fear for this movement is that it will find itself satisfied once the (predominantly white) middle class has been given a few biscuits, a bit of what they want, after which the urgent vision of a more just society for all is abandoned. Historically, Zinn writes, that is what has happened to so many American uprisings: a few concessions are made, the protestors feel as though they made a difference, and it’s back to business as usual.
If the American autumn truly signals a kind of national death, it’s important to be aware of what exactly is dying and what will remain. After death comes rebirth, to be sure, but the Christian paradigm adds an element to the equation, which Zizek mentioned when he spoke in Liberty Park on Sunday: “What is Christianity?” he asked. “It’s the Holy Spirit. What’s the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other. And who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense the Holy Spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience.”
Danielle Winterton is a fiction writer and essayist and co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.