One of the frustrations of being a left-wing activist is that the admirable self-critiquing aspect of left-wing discourse often makes organization difficult. I put in years and countless hours in the antiwar movement in the mid-2000's. (I don't organize myself, anymore, although I feel plenty guilty about it.) Back in those days I was constantly frustrated by the smart liberal people I met who were dedicated and articulate opponents of the Iraq war who refused to ever sign on to any public show of support. The reason was often that they could express some fairly convincing critique of any given protest, group, or movement. Fairly convincing, that is, but not nearly proportional to the great necessity of opposing our invasion and occupation of Iraq.
There is frequently a tendency in left-wing circles to fail to see the forest for the trees when it comes to political expression. If you feel the way that I feel, opposing the war in Iraq, as with opposing the continuing capture of our political process by moneyed interests, is a matter of exigence and necessity. If you wait around for the perfect moment, the perfect movement, the perfect march, the perfect rally, and the perfect protesters, you will never protest anything. You will make the perfect the enemy of the alright and effectively self-censor. Yes, goals matter, process matters, message matters. First you take the streets. That's what people in right-wing protest movements know. First you take the streets. Perfect doesn't happen and you can't wait for it. You find the change that must happen and you advocate for it as fiercely as you are able. The self-critiquing aspect of liberalism is of great value to me, and I recognize that what I'm describing stems from that. But change can't come without accepting the non-ideal.
So let me say off the bat that I am in broad solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, that I celebrate the spirit of resistance for its own sake, that I welcome the recognition that our finance and banking sectors are the cause of a huge portion of our problems, and that I am thrilled at the existence of a genuine left-wing resistance movement. Those things come first. They matter most.
That commitment and solidarity expressed, I'm disturbed by a recent development in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I keep seeing photos of people holding signs, or watching interviews with people, or reading blog posts or on Facebook, that express some measure of this: the problem is that young college graduates have lots of student loan debt and can't get jobs, and so now they're taking to the streets. And to me, if that is the message here, heaven help us.
Here's a post by Mike Konczal that illustrates this idea. Here's Jonathan Alter expressing similar sentiment. Here is a piece from Reuters that explores some of these issues. This idea is all over if you look for it.
Consider what the idea here is: that this protest becomes something worth considering when and only when it becomes about those who are most visible. Only when the young and college educated begin to express grievance, and only when that grievance concerns their material wealth and opportunity, do the protests begin to take off. It is extremely disturbing to me how quickly a movement opposing our system of prestige and wealth becomes a movement about those who thought they were entitled to succeed in that system. Complaining that a college education hasn't moved you into the material comfort and social strata you wanted isn't an argument against this system; it's a complaint about the outcome of the system that tacitly asserts the value of that system. When someone says "I have a law degree and I work as a barista," the necessary assumption of that statement is that their law degree entitles them to a certain material and social privilege. That privilege is precisely what animates the system they say they are protesting.
If the message is "I went to college and I don't have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised," then none of this means anything. These complaints, I'm sorry to say, are ultimately a way of saying "I didn't get mine." That's not a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.
The educated unemployed young deserve better from our system, it's true. Recapturing some of the vast portion of wealth that flowed to the richest in the last decades will help them, and they are right to ask for that. But this country cannot be fixed by wishing to go back to the economics of 2005. The problem with our model is that it is inherently unjust and inherently unsustainable. Yes, we must take back from the wealthiest what they have taken. But we also must understand that defining success or failure based on who gets what level of security and luxury is to fall right back into the materialist trap that has created this system.
I have great sympathy for the people of my generation and those a little younger than me, as they are emerging from a childhood where they were told that they could have whatever they wanted into a world where they can't. But they must recognize that the problem was always the promise, and not the failure to get what was promised. You can't, actually, have everything you want. You are not entitled to the life you have dreamed. And we are not so wealthy that we can all live in opulence. If the goal is merely to restore the condition of the previous two decades and add more people to the ranks of the middle class, then that is the problem reasserting itself. After all, wages have been stagnant for decades. But the educated class was bought off by the widespread "prosperity" provided by endless easy credit and the phony growth of bubbles and illusory housing wealth. Those protesting because they thought they were entitled to a house and consumer electronics are announcing that they want to be bought off again.
To mean anything, this movement must be a movement that opposes both the means and the ends of the contemporary American engine of "success," both out of a conviction that it is unfair and that it is unsustainable.. It cannot merely be a complaint about outcomes.
All popular movements are more likely to fail than to succeed. This is the reality of power, the momentum of entrenched systems, and the truth of where power resides in capitalist democracy-- in capital, and not the people. But if this movement becomes merely about the failure of our system to provide our educated young people with the material goods they thought they were entitled to, it will be a victim of a kind of philosophical suicide. The reality is that the rampant materialism of the past order was unsustainable on its own terms, even absent a moral critique. That we cannot return to that system is non-normative, but merely descriptive; it is neither left nor right wing but rather simple reality. Many of these people seem to have entitlement to material goods so ingrained into their core philosophy that they cannot imagine an alternative. But an alternative is what we must develop, not because of what any of us wants but because of cold reality. If their antipathy for Wall Street is merely anger that the old system has failed to give them the life of their dreams, they will switch targets until they run out. Eventually they might find that there can be no protest because no one can restore that empty and unhealthy dream.
A new order is possible but it can only be a genuinely new order, and it cannot carry with it the empty promise of boundless wealthy that preceded it. If this protest becomes a complaint about what people thought they deserved and didn't get then the movement has been strangled in its crib.