Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
If one is willing to look for them, political history supplies no small supply of darkly amusing parallels. October 1, 2013 marked the start of a government shutdown, but on October 1, 2011 there had been another shutdown of sorts – the (accidental) closing of the Brooklyn Bridge by activists associated with Occupy Wall Street.
Granted, intention is very important. It is hard to argue that the government shutdown is not the result of the choices of politicians; however, the activists on the Brooklyn Bridge had intended to march across the bridge, only to have their forward progress blocked by the police. Technically, one could argue, the activists did not shut down the bridge, the police shut down the bridge by deciding to arrest the 700(ish) activists on the bridge.
While Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011 the number of people who assembled on that first day was not sufficient for the movement to garner too much attention. It was occurrences in the following days that allowed OWS to really blossom – reminding the world, not only, that people were not going anywhere, but that they were serious. Footage circulating on the Internet, September 24 (2011), of a group of non-violent women being pepper sprayed by a police officer sparked a great deal of outrage, but it was perhaps the shutdown of the Brooklyn Bridge, that announced to the city, the country, and people all over that what was going on was not to be easily dismissed.
From the outset – but particularly from the point at which corporate media and politicians felt the need to recognize the existence of OWS – there were complaints that the movement lacked focus. The commentators frustrated grumble: “but what are their demands?” was repeated so often that the statement quickly became a sort of cliché. Yet the topic of demands would ultimately play a large part in the discourse around the movement once the various occupy encampments had been raided as it gave a platform by which the question could be asked: was the movement successful? That is certainly a complex debate (and one worth having) yet it may be the case that at this point a different tack can be taken towards the question of the movement’s success. It is not so much that Occupy Wall Street lacked demands, as that demands were never the point.
Occupy Wall Street was a warning.
Indeed, a warning, a sort of woeful clarion call to the citizens to recognize that rapacious ruling forces claimed to rule in the name of the people but did not govern in their interests. Occupy Wall Street declared “the government does not work for you.” It took the government roughly two years to conclusively prove OWS correct, not only by “not working for you” but by “not working at all.” Something made abundantly clear by the fact that the shutdown has furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers who staffed such agencies as the Center for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the National Parks, The Library of Congress, and other agencies while keeping open the repressive apparatus of the NSA and still sending paychecks to the politicians responsible for this debacle.
While many have tried to draw parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party (parallels that may have a tiny kernel of truth but which are largely a matter of false equivalency), the government shutdown reveals one of the key respects in which the movements are different. The Tea Party sought political power as a way to enforce their particular view of the country upon the rest of the citizenry (regardless of notions of majority rule in a democracy), with their representatives only too happy to shut the government down as part of an ideological farce. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, eschewed political power; recognizing that regardless of the occupants of Congress and the White House the particular view of the country that is enforced is consistently a corporate model. Some “conventional Democratic liberals” (as distinct from actual Leftists) were frustrated that OWS did not get on board to re-elect President Obama, yet the government shutdown demonstrates the Occupy claim that most consistently frustrated liberals, namely: the whole governing edifice is broken. Electing “better” leaders is just putting a fresh coat of paint on a rotting structure.
After all, it’s actually rather unfair to refer to the government shutdown as the #GOPshutdown. Really, it’s the government’s shutdown. And, at risk of being crass (the historic situation is quite different), it is worth considering some choice words from Malcolm X originally delivered at the Congress for Racial Equality (Detroit, Michigan [April 12, 1964]) regarding this “governmental” trouble:
“Today our people can see that we’re faced with a government conspiracy. This government has failed us. The senators who are filibustering concerning your and my rights, that’s the government. Don’t say it’s Southern senators. This is the government; this is a government filibuster. It’s not a segregationist filibuster. It’s a government filibuster. Any kind of activity that takes place on the floor of the Congress or the Senate, it’s the government. Any kind of dillydallying, that’s the government. Any kind of pussyfooting, that’s the government. Any kind of act that’s designed to delay or deprive you and me right now of getting full rights, that’s the government that’s responsible. “ (Malcolm X)
While it is obvious that the historical moment is different, one can switch out certain words from the above quotation with more fitting contemporary terms and find that the basic gist of Malcolm X’s argument remains true. This is not just the GOP or the Tea Party shutting down the government…it is the government. The mechanisms that certain forces within the government are taking advantage of are those that are part of the power system of the government. And these are systems that are more easily used for disruptive and repressive purposes by those with power than they can be used by the people for redress. Even the notion of democratic elections has taken on a particularly absurd aspect in regards to this shutdown – President Obama was reelected, the Democrats held the Senate, and the Democrats won the popular vote for the House – yet the election results seem to have had little consequence in terms of what is actually happening in the country today. It does not matter who is elected, in other words, it’s still just the government.
The demand of Occupy Wall Street was, perhaps, not for the government to change (the government does not respond to demands except with token gestures), but for people to recognize that their power as citizens in a democracy had been mutilated into the ability to periodically choose between corporate candidates – with the actual election results having precious little real determinant value. One does not need to have voted for President Obama (one could have voted for Jill Stein [for example] or written in Rufus T. Firefly) to recognize that he was reelected, and yet if one looks at the legislation that has been passed since that election one could also be justified in wondering if he had actually lost. But as OWS warned: the structures of government have decayed, what we are now seeing is the coats of paint that had hidden the rot are finally chipping away. The US political structure has crumbled so badly that the walls can barely hold the fresh coats of paint in place.
Even if it did not always use this terminology, Occupy Wall Street seems to have understood the political model set forth by the philosopher Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Incorporated (a book which, arguably, has greatly influenced Chris Hedges), wherein Wolin develops a concept of “inverted totalitarianism” or “managed democracy” which he defines thusly:
“Managed democracy is centered on containing electoral politics; it is cool, even hostile towards social democracy beyond promoting literacy, job training, and other essentials for a society struggling to survive in the global economy. Managed democracy is democracy systematized.” (Wolin, 47)
It is this model that Wolin argues has supplanted democracy, and it is because of this switch that appeals to the current system are bound to fail. Attempting to get democratic change from a system that is only democratic in illusory image is like trying to get a cat to compose an opera. Counter to what might be termed traditional totalitarianism, Wolin writes that what is seen within “inverted totalitarianism” is that:
“instead of pursuing unanimity, it encourage divisiveness; instead of rule by a single master race, it promotes predomination—that is rule by diverse powers which have found it in their interest to combine while retaining their separate identities. The key components are capital, the very rich, small business associations, large media organizations, evangelical Protestant leaders, and the Catholic hierarchy. Models of organization tend to be corporate as well as military…opposition is not abolished but neutralized, its politics constrained within limits, allowed a minor concession now and then that keeps its supporters hopeful, and pressed to emulate the victors’ strategies…Other than fervor, the key characteristic of the adherent is a combination of acceptance of and superiority to marketplace practices and incentives. The adherent is committed to transcendental values, to Christianity, the sanctity of life, the “traditional family,” and premarital abstinence. But he or she is not a critic of capitalism.” (Wolin, 185)
The government shutdown, the media reporting around it (corporate media is loving this story, make no mistake), and the floundering and flummoxed public response makes evident that what goes on in Washington DC is not what many would like to believe goes on in Washington DC. We cannot hope to create effective change, if we are trying to still negotiate with a power system that simply does not exist any longer. Occupy Wall Street warned that this system of “managed democracy” and “inverted totalitarianism” had supplanted the old systems of democracy in America. The tragedy of Occupy Wall Street is not that the parks were raided, but that the movement’s warning went unheeded.
Some times being proven correct is a harrowing comfort.
Wolin, Sheldon. Democracy Incorporated. Princeton, 2008.