Thursday, February 23, 2012

the second congress

I've been arguing with Malcolm Harris and others in the comments at Crooked Timber, concerning his post about David Graeber and debt there. You might be interested in the argument. I like Harris, but he has a bad habit of using the idiom of revolution in his role as an advocate for the bourgeois. That's nothing wrong with that kind of advocacy; most media is devoted to it, after all. Certainly most of what I've written in my life is oriented towards the concerns of the middle class, being as it is my own. And here I am, expressing the need to take drastic action to reform tuition and student debt. I am, measure for measure, a creature of a particular establishment. But the language of emancipation matters, and it has to be applied with care.

The question I asked in the comments is one that is very important to me: how many Occupy protesters would, given the chance, immediately swap positions with the bankers they're protesting? I don't trust and have never trusted those protesters who are ultimately agitating against the outcomes of the system rather than the system itself. "The system is wrong" is a constructively critical statement. "The system doesn't hire enough people, or hired the wrong people" is a statement that reasserts the legitimacy of that system. Do I have personal sympathy for those laboring under student loan debt? Of course I have sympathy for them. I am them. And, again, I'm trying to participate in a national conversation as an advocate for helping them and future college students. But where my sympathy lies and where I think political effort should be directed are separate, and no genuinely critical discourse could fail to parse these differences. We are the 99%, but we are not all the same 99%.

The danger for the left-wing is not that it will be met on some battlefield and defeated by the forces of capital and reaction. The danger is that it will be co-opted, deflected, appropriated, misused. I have read and will read with interest Harris's writing on this topic, and I support the broad effort to alleviate student debt burdens. That effort cannot be used to distort our perception of who is on the top and who is on the bottom, the only political question of enduring meaning.


  1. The question I asked in the comments is one that is very important to me: how many Occupy protesters would, given the chance, immediately swap positions with the bankers they're protesting?

    Unfortunately, I don't have quantitative data on this or anything, only anecdotes. And my experience (as an Occupier who has been involved since early/mid-October) is that most of the highly active people, at least around here, would not. Most are very critical of the system as a whole. And you asked specifically about people with student debt signs, but an awful lot of Occupiers aren't college grads (though you probably knew that).

    I didn't come to your blog just to write this - I was actually reading a post of yours somewhere else, and searched for other stuff by you, and found this blog, and this happens to be the top post. But I figured that I might as well say something, since your question was there. I'm happy to give other personal observations about Occupy if you like.

  2. L'Hote folks,

    From my breezy and sheepish experience of the Denver Occupy site, I would agree with JHL.

    That's really not my problem with Occupy. My problem is more the fact that few people on the Left even seem to have even considered the possibility that it might help us if we, you know, possibly, like, articulately and coherently moved beyond the violence-ruined twilight of revolutionary Marxism. (I know, I proly used that phrase before, sue me, so did Homer.)

    That's why I'm not a crank when I keep yammering on about the RIDICULOUS significance of hunter-gatherers. They really can tell us the way forward (or, the Path, to all y'all Namaste folks). I mean, geez, wouldn't it be nice to have Context at last, an empirically accurate perception of a what a Human Being IS. Wouldn't it be nice to stop pretending that words like "biology" and "culture" are Real?

    You might think this sort of anti-scientISM naturally lemmings us toward dangerous, deluded Utopia, but you would be wrong. On the contrary, it is most definitely and splendidly anti-utopian, and by its nature CANNOT and WILL NEVER be co-opted, deflected, appropriated, or misused. Why? Because it nurtures a vision of History that is utterly, insolvably TRAGIC.

    I.e.: This is NOT about the City on the Hill. This is about the Hell on the Hill that fucking needs some legit COMPASSION and WISDOM.

    All right, peace my homies of the Rising Dregs of the Left (especially Jcapan, my Amerikan homie in mysterious foreign climes), got to do some good physical work all morning (mattress unloading), don't feel like such a self-rotting factory of spleen and defeat.

    Also, Freddie. I love you, man, but stop saying things like, "I am, measure for measure, a creature of a particular establishment." I understand where you're coming from in proly more ways than 1, but really, fuck that, all we can try to say is that, "Measure for measure, I try to be a Real Person." Since we very clearly don't measure up, since ALL of us are too imprisoned in the inheritances of caste and class and all the myriad hateful social pathologies generated by the Iron Hand of economic segregation, then maybe for now an aspiration of silent effort is the wilder side of valor.

    Also: Bravo your final sentence.

    --- sweet tooth aka The One Going About The Woods aka Honeypaws is Outies (sic)

  3. On the other hand, I could be all wet.

  4. "Yeah, when I think of those most oppressed in today’s America, I think of the college educated."

    JFC on a stick, ivory tower much?

    As for "how many Occupy protesters would, given the chance, immediately swap positions with the bankers they're protesting," you get that that sounds like a conservative frame/dismissal? Or, at the least an Yglesias post.

    Could you clarify where you stand, given your membership in that particular establishment (and also as someone who self-IDs as a leftist)? Do you advocate tinkering with the system or its complete remaking? B/C like Harris and some of his commenters "I don't trust and have never trusted" those on "the left" with petit bourgeois sympathies.

  5. I am trying to identify a dangerous dynamic in a larger political movement with which I broadly identify.

  6. p.s. We all need to get better talking about class in Amerika, and forging actual human relationships across those abysms. Because, let's face it, in the future, it's either division and violence, or grudging, arduous, pragmatic forgiveness. Given the looming climacterics of peak oil, peak dirt, peak fish, and peak fertilizer (and no doubt a few more tossed in for good explosive measure), someday soon it's gonna be one or the other. We basically pampered refugees from the upper classes better hope it's forgiveness. And we better do what we can to be worthy of it. (Granting that we're human and usually preoccupied with not-completely-drowning-and-perishing in the ocean of ourselves. Which is not to be confused with a merely quiescent quietism.)

    Thanks for providing this forum, Freddie dawg. Fun when yr down. Best wishes to everyone.

  7. Elaborating a bit, from a purely personal perspective: I probably could have been one of those bankers. I went to one of those famous universities that are those firms' primary recruiting ground, I was an undergrad at the height of the finance bubble (class of 2007), and finance and management consulting were the huge trends among people from those class years at my school. But I had never wanted to do that - I went into research instead.

    However, I am really class-privileged and educationally-privileged - not the 1%, but probably the 10%. Most Occupiers were never lucky enough to be in the situation of making that choice.

    Within Occupy, I'm primarily a medic. Back when we had a camp...the people who were frequent medical tent patients (as opposed to the ones who came in for one-time injuries or cough drops) really tended to be the people most screwed by society. They were the homeless folks, the people with severe mental illness, the people with drug addictions or severe PTSD. There were people like this at every big urban Occupy camp, and there's a common and unfortunate public perception that they were charity cases rather than real activists. And you know, some of them were, but quite a lot were active in the movement (and some originally showed up for the free meals and then turned into activists).

    I do occasionally see, Freddie, elements of the college-educated-centric thing you've expressed concern about. I mostly see it, though, in student-centered contexts. The college-based Occupations that I've seen have a whole lot of it (unsurprisingly). I went to an Occupy student summit and it was very focused on student loan debt. But even in the most privileged college bastions, that isn't all that's going on. Occupy Harvard, for instance, has been very big on standing with staff who are facing layoffs and pay cuts.

    In my Occupation, there are plenty of people with radical ideologies (e.g. left-anarchism, socialism), some with liberal ideologies (e.g. liberal Dems, Green Party), some in between (e.g. social democrats), and some who don't fit into any category that I just named. People have different ideas about what the end goal should be, and whether we should fix this system or get a new one, but the vast majority seem to think that the system itself is broken. It's not a matter of "I would be happy if someone would just give me a lucrative job already." I'm sure those folks are around, but they don't tend to be highly active.

    There's more that I could say, but I feel like I'm just rambling rather than addressing your concerns, so I'll stop for now.

  8. You should just write about the people you imagine would take jobs in the firms they're protesting. Really, who are they?

  9. Why can't someone be both a banker and an Occupier or someone working for a better system? I don't see it as hypocritical at all, given the limited room there is to carve out more righteous livelihood in the system as it is.

  10. The most important words in that thread were typed by Freddie himself:

    "If that’s your concern, fine."

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