Friday, October 7, 2011

solidarity first, then fear for this movement's future

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.


redscott said...

Or it could be about punishing the worthless, stupid bastards who bankrupted the world and want the rest of us to pay for it. That wouldn't build the sustainable model of our economy that you rightly argue we should be thinking about. But it would be an excellent start because we're never going to get to that model until the keepers of the old model they've profited so handsomely by are made to feel their own failures. Or we could think about the new model on a parallel track while we're making the dumb bastards pay. Americans like building new things, but I think they like even better identifying an enemy they can vilify (Indians, nazis, japanese fascists, commies, hippies, Islamofascistswhateverthe fuckthatmeans) and then taking him on. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's what struck me.

TheStone said...

You ripped the words out of my head, Freddie. I'm just hoping that there is some sort of sampling bias going on w/ who the tele-reporters are choosing to pull aside to talk to. But then again, isn't it almost always true that movements get attention when it's the middling sort who are pissed about something (eg, 1776,French Revolution, 2009 model Tea Party)? That being said, I think that various strands of discontent CAN coalesce around a common target, as pointed out by redscott, especially when that target is giving pretty much everybody the finger. The greater challenge is building anew amongst the ashes of the estates you have burnt down. You've done a great job of making that point in your post.
That's all I got. A cold and the obligatory Nyquil are kicking my arse and I hope I made some sense here.

Josh said...

That's not a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.

Your posts would be generally great without them too, but usually there's at least one moment in each where you just nail it, Freddie. And that is wonderful. Thanks, man.

john newman said...

There is sampling bias. Journalists are looking for what they want to find down town. I have been going by daily since the protest started and while the student debt signs are there they are no more prominent than the "Greed is killing the Earth", "The love of money is the root of all evil", "Has anything trickled down to you lately?", "White collar crime needs to do hard time", "Greed Over People" and my personal favorite, "Ronald Reagan sucked balls". The largest group though is about jobs and the need for them. While employment does fuel consumption, consumption is necessary to survival so I wouldn't be too critical of it in this instance.

Tyler said...

I read all of this very differently. If it were as Freddie described, I'd agree wholeheartedly, but:

People holding signs describing their situation (as here: are describing *their* individual situation. Rhetorically I always understood that as the thrust, that everybody's been screwed, everybody's got a grievance, and piles of student loan debt counts as a grievance. I think the idea that everyone can buy into this movement and feel solidarity with it is really important, and I think it would not necessarily be preferable if, say, the movement were composed of middle-class youths who were speaking on behalf of the poor, rather than themselves.

The other point is that the issue of student debt is less about college not turning into a job, but about debt itself. Or at least that how Konczal's always presented it, that we're increasingly becoming a society of debtors, and that such things as semi-poor bohemianism are less and less an option for people who have amassed lots of student debt, which has implications for other things like protest movements and countercultures.

So I just don't see "I went to college and can't get a job" as the central grievance, and student loan debt does in fact represent a structural change in our economy with implications beyond bourgeois entitlement.

jdrs0819 said...

I agree with Tyler about the student debt nonsense. As a 23 year old who has graduated college in May of 2011 with an engineering degree, it's not that I felt "entitled" to some level of material wealth and now I'm pissed off. I was supposed to leave for the Peace Corps in September of 2011 but was made to hold off until June of 2012 because of the budget cuts to that department. I recognize our unsustainable lifestyles. I criticized Nick Kristof's article on this movement for the same reasons: unrestrained capitalistic societies dependent on economic growth simply cannot continue indefinitely, especially with emerging economies taking their share.

What I am pissed about, as Tyler said, is the amount of debt that I'm stuck with, with no way of paying it off -- despite the fact that I got an "engineering degree" from a top school (my program is ranked 10th in the nation). It was a state school, too, so it's not like I went to an expensive private university. I put engineering degree in quotes because everyone always says, "Well what did you expect getting that POS liberal arts degree?" If the job market wasn't this bad, I would be able to pay off this debt easily. It's essentially the same reasons homeowners who were evicted are pissed off. They entered a contract under agreed circumstances, and now the other side isn't living up to its end of the bargain. I got this degree because I always wanted to be an astronaut. During college, the president's campaign made me change my mind and I instead wanted to go into public service, so I applied to the Peace Corps. And now I can't even fucking do that, and I'm stuck with $50,000 in debt substitute teaching when I can while looking for permanent work. It's bullshit, Freddie, and it's not because "I want mine!" You don't call yourself a Marxist; I don't know exactly how I want society to eventually operate, but it is very much inspired by Marxist thought. I don't know that I'm a Marxist either, but I do know that something has to change, and these grievances aren't necessarily "I want mine, dammit."

kth said...

Though I'm not as convinced as you that that's what Occupy Wall Street is about, "more stuff for working people" is not progressive and never will be.

Adam Ozimek said...


I'm left again seeing a critique of how things are but no clues as to what a different and better reality would look like. What does the post-materialist U.S. actually look like? What specific policies should the protesters actually be asking for?

Freddie said...

Freddie said...

Oh, the things I'd do, Adam. Russian nesting dolls, man. Russian nesting dolls.

If you want the cheap gloss, it starts with an "s".

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"more stuff for working people" is not progressive and never will be." -kth

"What does the working man want? More." -Samuel Gompers

And there you have the difference between socialism as a progressive policy program, and socialism as an adorable affectation of the tenured.

kth said...

Gompers was, more than any labor leader, responsible for the embourgeoisment of the union movement. The social contract that resulted--union members would share in the prosperity of the greater society if they gave up on any fundamental change to that society--was not a bad thing while it lasted (till about 1980), but hardly points the way forward.

"An SUV in every carport" has fairly obvious problems with sustainability, and in general the insistence upon "more stuff" has precisely coincided with the extinction of good jobs for non-college graduates. A decent future for the many requires that we challenge the assumptions of the consumer culture, not reinforce them.

Adam Ozimek said...


Have you anywhere gone into details about specific big policy changes you'd like to move us towards the "s"? Is there a handful of posts that sum of the Freddie-alternative-economy? Lay it out for us so we can have at it!

Freddie said...

I'll try, Adam, to write something new and complete. (But you know me.)

Josh K-sky said...

Silly bourgeois Gompers. "What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more ... opportunities to cultivate our better natures."

pseudonymous in nc said...

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.

Sorry, no. A false-consciousness objection to the concept of working-class self-improvement, as opposed to an analysis of the systematic suffocation of those ambitions, just won't do. It's ideologically too clever for its own good, and heads off into Dave Spart territory.

Coal miners don't shred their lungs so that their sons can shred their lungs after them. That doesn't mean you shouldn't advocate for the miners, but it shouldn't mean in turn that you castigate them for wanting their sons to go to medical school, or their sons for having that aspiration.

irk said...

You grow up nowadays and you don't get told that you'll live in comfort and security if you get a college degree and then get a job. You're told that the only way to get a job in a particular field is to have a college degree in that particular field. 4 years later you're in debt, you have your degree (good for only one category of job) and it's blind odds whether the job that looked lucrative and open 4 years before (or more) is still the same. Whetehr or not it is, you still have that debt (and there's no switching your degree on the fly, now that you've earned it).

Search craigslist and see what you can find for degreeless work, and see how well you could really survive on it (and then see whether the food stamp program in your state is as much of a safety net as you think it is). Then come back and complain about the college students who are quite rightfully saying "we were told this was what work and money we would have to spend to get a job, where is the job we were told would be here now that we've done the work and have to pay the money?"

I'm lucky. I usually manage to talk up my Graphic Design BFA as something that qualifies me for web development work (mostly programming, at that). Not all degrees are so flexible.

The Real Samuel Gompers said...

What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more ... opportunities to cultivate our better natures.

--Quoted in Mantsios, Gregory. A New Labor Movement for the New Century. Florence, Ky.: Taylor & Francis, 1998, p. 51.

Anonymous said...

The post may be a little hard on young people. You've borrowed money, and/or seen your family scrimp and save, to help you get an education. Then you spend 3 years watching the economy after a devastating crash, seeing Wall Street lobbyists doing everything they can to water down any possible safeguards, e.g. Dodd / Frank, against yet another crash. You're well-aware that a new crash can occur at any time, and that if it does, you may well lose your job, while people on Wall Street, thanks to their political connections, will get oodles and oodles of taxpayer money. I'm twice the age of most of them, but I don't blame many young people for feeling cheated by the system.

Canuck said...

Too many students have very large non-discharable student loans.

No bankrupcy protection and they can't get jobs. The interest is racking up and some will live a life of indentured servitude.

Let me say it again: No Bankrupcy Protection.

It's not a little thing.

EDB said...

Yes. Loved this post. Thank you.

Alex said...

I'm not sure I agree with the sentiment that says college students complaining about loans isn't worthwhile. As Tyler said, student loans are about debt, itself. Over 60% of American high-school students go into college (that's not the number who get a degree). The terrain of the working class is different than it once was (there are a lot fewer apprentices and a lot more "interns"). And in the U.S., debt-financing has been, for thirty years, the answer to everything, college included. Everyone has been conned, and it is college students who are responding first (because they have the time).

Michael Z. Williamson said...

I still see some problems:

The complaints on their fora are incoherent. So your guesses are only that--guesses. You can't actually support your hypothesis with references.

They are unable to articulate their complaints. I've spoken to some in person. Same thing. The complaints that are getting bandied about are beyond ridiculous. The blame for this lies squarely on the Education Industrial Complex, who endlessly exploits "increases" in student aid to fund its football teams and, if any is left over research. That's what's important here, after all, not actually TEACHING students.

Second, the longer it goes on incoherently, the more the general public perceives it as boring idiocy to be ignored. Worse, since anyone there more than a few hours obviously has logistical support from somewhere (I sure as hell couldn't stop for five days to go protest), it increasingly comes across as professional whining, not legitimate protest.

This road does not lead anywhere productive.

The clearest whine (yes, I'll use that term) seems to be, "The system has mistreated us so we want to give the system more power, but this time make it care!"

Good luck with that.

There are some very legitimate complaints to be made and addressed, but this bunch are not doing so in a productive fashion.

I'm quite sure no real villain is going to object.

And when you have multimillionaire spokespeople endorsing your protest against "The rich," you lose any credibility.

I guess that's several problems.

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Agersomnia said...

Social protest against any kind of hegemonical system is always going to be done with a mixed bunch of ideals, goals, and mindsettings.

Now then, if the Occupy movement is to persist in time, and to evolve into something more permanent, something stronger, it probably has to develop some sort of idological common ground among all the people. A Charter of Goals, a manifesto, a declaration that lays the terrain for a social protest beyond sitting in the streets or in the parks. And also, a declaration that describes what they want to achieve, what they are willing to do.

One thing is to keep it as a protest. Another is peaceful resistance. Civil disobedience. Active resistance, even if not peaceful. Or simply to define the limits as "By any means necesary, as long as justice, equity, and democracy are achieved for all the people living in our country".

And also as a side note...
It is worthy to remember that USA goverment is quite famous for not promoting democracy in any other place of the world unless they can make money out of it. So it would be intresting to see what they are willing to do to recover control and order if the protests evolve into a more organized and permanent movement. Your present laws are not an example of respect for the citizens.

Unknown said...

Yes, many ordinary angry Americans have only one awareness: they see that "the American dream isn't working for ME, or MY FAMILY, and I want it NOW." But this is how it starts. As one slogan seen at an Occupy event said “the beginning is near." The college grads and students joining with others in the Occupy movement are making a first stand, and they want to fight. Leftist speech and actions should be directed towards helping them develop new interpretations, new awareness of history, new solutions. It is a poor use of bandwidth to denigrate them and deny their suffering. Conditions have changed. The ruling class is no longer willing and able to buy off a large percentage of the American public (including intellectuals), and the consumer "dream" has created a nightmare of environmental destruction. Conditions are deteriorating all over the world. Americans cannot remain in a consumption-induced coma for much longer. But they are waking up in an atmosphere devoid of leftist or progressive thought and thick with noxious rightwing propaganda and fear. It is very uncertain what new form our society might take during the next few decades. Certainly smart and experienced leftists, like Freddie, can play an important role in helping to mold a new consciousness, but only if we figure out how to begin just where we are now. Let us nurture and support these angry college grads; they have a lot to learn, but so much potential to help build a new world.