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OccupyWallStreet: American Exodus

The Israelites were the original Occupiers

OccupyWallStreet is befuddling the “experts”.  It defies categorization.  Are they Democrats?  Radical Marxists?  A new generation of hippies?  Naive?  Or the true brilliant 11 dimensional chess players that Obama could only dream to be? What?  WHAT??

While the pollsters and pundits try to figure that out by using their standard questionnaires that neatly files the subject into bins that can be mined later, Mike Konzal at Rortybomb took a different approach and analyzed what the 99% had to say about themselves without the filter.  He wrote a script to parse the data from the “We Are the 99%” tumblr entries.  I think you can do this using python, regular expressions and the natural language tool kit (NLTK) if any enterprising Conflucians want to do it themselves (I might ask the kid to teach me).  Then he tallied up the most frequently appearing words, minus the promiscuous ones, and peered at the entrails.  What he found was a bit of a shock because we joke around about how the country has changed but when you see it in the data, it’s not so funny anymore.  Here are his initial findings:

So if the 99% Tumblr was a PAC, what would its demands look like, and what ideology would it presuppose?  Freddie DeBoer is discouraged after reading the 99% tumblr. He’s concerned it reflects a desire for restoration of the glory days of the 90s-00s, which concerns him because “this country cannot be fixed by wishing to go back to the economics of 2005.”  Concerned that the solidarity is one that, at most, is a I-got-mine-you-go-get-yours form of neoliberalism (as he imagines it, “I went to college and I don’t have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised”), DeBoer is worried that We Are the 99% isn’t “a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.”

With all due respect to DeBoer, the demands I found aren’t the ones of the go-go 90s-00s, but instead far more ancient cry, one of premodernity and antiquity.

Let’s bring up a favorite quote around here.  Anthropologist David Graeber cites historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class.”  And think through these cases.  The overwhelming majority of these statements are actionable demands in the form of (i) free us from the bondage of these debts and (ii) give us a bare minimum to survive on in order to lead decent lives (or, in pre-Industrial terms, give us some land).  In Finley’s terms, these are the demands of a peasantry, not a working class.

The actual ideology of modernity, broadly speaking, is absent.  There isn’t the affluenza of Freddie’s worries, no demands for cheap gas, cheaper credit, giant houses, bigger electronics all under the cynical ”Ownership Society” banner.  The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay.  They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share.  The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy.  There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.”  It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.

It’s awful that it has come to this, but it also is an opportunity.  As was discussed in the monetary debate from earlier, creditors aren’t bosses; their power is less coercive and much more obviously based on socially-constructed fictions, laws and ideas.  As Peter Frase pointed out:

Indeed, widespread and large debt loads are one of the most important ways in which my generation differs from those that immediately preceded it…This has direct implications for the left: more than once, older comrades have noted to me that it has become much more difficult to live in the kind of bohemian poverty that sustained an earlier generation of young radicals and activists…

And there may be some advantages to a politics centered around debt rather than wage labor. The problem confronting the wage laborer is that they are, in fact, dependent on the boss for their sustenance, unless they can solve the collective action problem of getting everyone together to expropriate the expropriators. Debt, on the other hand, is just an agreed-upon social fiction denoting an obligation for some act of consumption that has already occurred. The only way to make people respect debt is through some combination of brute force and ideological legitimacy–a legitimacy that we can only hope is starting to slip away.

Upon reflection, it is very obvious where the problems are.  There’s no universal health care to handle the randomness of poor health.  There’s no free higher education to allow people to develop their skills outside the logic and relations of indentured servitude. Our bankruptcy code has been rewritten by the top 1% when instead, it needs to be a defense against their need to shove inequality-driven debt at populations. And finally, there’s no basic income guaranteed to each citizen to keep poverty and poor circumstances at bay.

We have piecemeal, leaky versions of each of these in our current liberal social safety net.  Having collated all these responses, I think completing these projects should be the ultimate goal of the 99%.

So, how will OccupyWallStreet and the 99% turn these problems into policies that will address the reality of day to day life for the average American serf beaten down by debt?  This is a good question and, in part, also relates to the insistent demands from the naysayers and right wing noise machine that OccupyWallStreet define itself, right this very minute!  And put together a list of demands that you want fulfilled so we can tell you how unrealistic they are and make you go back to your sorry little lives, you losers.  Isn’t that right, you Tea Party lurkers and Glenn Beck fans?  You want instant answers so you can shoot them down.

Which brings me to George Lakoff.  Lakoff has also been studying the movement’s language and asking himself why it resonates so well with the American public.  What he sees is a conflict between two moralities:

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.

Though OWS concerns go well beyond financial issues, your target is right: the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.

I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed.

It seems to me that the OWS movement is moral in nature, that occupiers want the country to change its moral focus. It is easy to find useful policies; hundreds have been suggested. It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands. If the moral focus of America changes, new people will be elected and the policies will follow. Without a change of moral focus, the conservative worldview that has brought us to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail.

We Love America. We’re Here to Fix It

I see OWS as a patriotic movement, based on a deep and abiding love of country – a patriotism that it is not just about the self-interests of individuals, but about what the country is and is to be. Do Americans care about other citizens, or mainly just about themselves? That’s what love of America is about. I therefore think it is important to be positive, to be clear about loving America, seeing it in need of fixing, and not just being willing to fix it, but being willing to take to the streets to fix it. A populist movement starts with the people seeing that they are all in the same boat and being ready to come together to fix the leaks.

This sounds pretty close to what we’re seeing, I think.  It also explains why Elizabeth Warren, while sorting through the data on why Americans go bankrupt, was converted from a Republican to a Democrat earlier in her career.  Well, that’s back when Democrats actually gave a shit.  She says that when she first starting sifting through the cases from bankruptcy courts, she had a built in confirmation bias and was sure she was going to find people who lived the high life and spent too much or lazy people or hedonists or whatever the Glenn Beck types think.  But what she found was that many of these people were undone by sudden unemployment, changes to their family lives or chronic and severe illnesses.  They hadn’t done anything differently than millions of their fellow Americans.  They had just hit a patch of really bad luck and found that there was no real safety net for them.  They got sick, they lost their jobs because they got sick, they lost their health insurance because they lost their jobs, they lost their savings because they had to pay for their healthcare, they lost their houses because they lost their savings.

When Elizabeth Warren speaks to people, they know that she understands what they’re dealing with because she’s seen their lives in detail.  It also explains why Barack Obama is so completely unsuited for his role right now.  If this is a battle between two moralities, then using the approach of compromise is doomed to failure.

As Lakoff says, “A populist movement starts with people seeing that they are all in the same boat and being ready to come together to fix the leaks.”

The 99% are all of us who just a few years ago were living what the right would consider righteous lives.  We are good citizens, we are taxpayers, we are loving parents, we are dedicated employees.  And through no fault of our own but the speculation and moral failures of the financial sector and the politicians that serve it, we are thrust back into a subsistence kind of existence that was familiar to our ancient ancestors.  We are burdened with debt, servants to a moneyed class, beaten down, tired and looking for a break from the endless cycle of always having to sell ourselves to make next month’s rent or COBRA payment, heating bill or food for our kids.  Now that the pain has bubbled up to the middle class, where professionals with advanced degrees and years of experience find themselves working far from home on contracts with low pay and no benefits, the chant, “We are the 99″ has real meaning.  We are all in the same boat and we must take on the oligarchs.

Which reminds me of Exodus.  The bible tells us how Moses lead his people out of Egypt but archeology tells us a different story.  Back in the day, in 13th century BC or so, Egypt was a superpower whose reach stretched over the Levant area.  The ruling class in the Canaanite cities was Egyptian ruling over the locals and using them as slaves and the artisan underclass.  At some point, the underclass decided it had had enough and a rebellion ensued, ending Egyptian reign and,  with the collapse of other Bronze Age cultures, plunging most of the Mediterranean into a dark age.  There may have been a Moses but what the archeological record looks like is a spontaneous and leaderless uprising that spread from city to city.  Egyptian rule ended in Canaan and, along with the collapse of other Bronze Age cultures, the Mediterranean region plunged into a dark age. When the Israelites took up their pens a few centuries later, they were writing from a culture where the former slaves had made the laws.

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