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I am currently reading three books at once; all are quite long, the longest being Marx’s Capital V. 1, which I will probably do a couple posts on once I finish reading it. I’m currently at page 400.
As a filler in the mean time, let’s look over some essays by Marx’s primary contemporary opponent, Mikhail Bakunin, whose influence on the Occupy movement is huge-he was one of the most cited thinkers in conversations I had with the most dedicated Occupiers, and because his ideas have never been attempted on a large scale, a much easier figure to romanticize than Marx is, though I would argue despite many questionable conclusions, Marx is the greater thinker. More on that when I post my reading of Capital.
Since Statism and Anarchy is obscenely overpriced, even used, I’ve begun with a sampling available for free at marxists.org. I’m going to cover each individually.
“CRITIQUE OF THE MARXIST THEORY OF STATE”
This is a very short piece laying out in a concise if confused fashion the primary objections of Bakunin to Marx’s theory of social progress. A couple good points are mixed in with a lot of self-contradictory rheotric.
He opens with maybe his most questionable position in the essay, a statement of pretty strict theory/praxis dualism:
Theory is always created by life, but never creates it; like mile-posts and road signs, it only indicates the direction and the different stages of life’s independent and unique development.
I’m not sure that Marx would even disagree with this statement in any of his non-prescriptive writings. Marx believed that the ideological positions, religious and secular, of a given time period come from a need to rationalize the economic organizations/means of production. I would argue, falling equally into the metaphysical trap, that in fact Foucault was probably closer to the answer with his idea of an economy of discourse-to say that people never act on theory/metaphysics is to make Bakunin’s very writing of this essay problematic. The reality exists not in a middle ground between the two positions but in a much more complex relationship than I think either every conceived of.
We are convinced that the masses of the people carry in themselves, in their instincts (more or less developed by history), in their daily necessities, and in their conscious or unconscious aspirations, all the elements of the future social organization.
This passage is pretty densely informed by Bakunin’s own positions. His belief in agency is encapsulated in the use of “in themselves”. Gertrude Stein responds:
There was no past or present in her, there was existence in her, there was a character to her but there was nothing important inside her, but she had existence enough to make of her a really existent thing inside her, existence was strong in her every moment in her, strong enough to make it to be real inside her, she did not need others around her to make existence inside her.
Obviously this is a puzzle too complex for a single response essay, mine or Bakunin’s. Still, we come to the problem of the basis of theory of state on an “inherent” “nature” of man. Which is not to say there aren’t behaviors and narratives that seem to repeat themselves on a grand or small scale throughout history and our own experiences. To boil these down to such a small construct would be to boil most of them off.
Bakunin is very concerned, and as it borne out entirely correctly, with Marx’s notion of the necessary transitional state that had to follow capitalism before the establishment of the ideal worker’s state. Bakunin here sees through the rationalist rhetoric of Marx and to a lesser extent the questionable posturing of sociology as “science” (and it should be noted that Marx, throughout Capital draws a lot of analogies to chemistry and questionably will derive principles by analogy):
The principal vice of the average specialist is his inclination to exaggerate his own knowledge and deprecate everyone else’s. Give him control and he will become an insufferable tyrant. To be the slave of pedants – what a destiny for humanity! Give them full power and they will begin by performing on human beings the same experiments that the scientists are now performing on rabbits and dogs
And questions whether Marx actually came to a new system at all:
The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.
In this quote, I see the genesis of Occupy’s resistance to electoral politics. It seems fairly reasonable. On the other hand, that there would need to be a transitional period between capitalism and what comes after also seems reasonable, for the exact reason that Bakunin tossed out at the beginning of his essay: the ideology of the population has to become amenable to the new form of organization, if only by a mass flushing of the old ideas. God makes the Jews wait for 40 years before allowing them into the promised land so those possessed of a “slave mentality” are flushed out etc.
Bakunin seems to suggest in his further attack on Marx’s elite that the defining element of character and agency, contrary to his own stated positions, is socially determined:
The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people.
It would seem then that the necessary transitional state shouldn’t focus on a concentration of power, and I can accept this without much quibbling. However, the answer would have to lie in the educational system, which, unlike in the communist states that have hitherto existed, would have to be carefully and precisely separated, if possible, from the propaganda system. I’ll go into this option more fully when I cover Neil Postman’s The End of Education and maybe some Dewey too if I feel up to it.
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Edward Bernays, a man whose name is coming back to the spotlight recently due to name dropping by various tastemakers in the left. The two people who I’ve seen in person giving talks who brought up 1928’s Propaganda as a seminal text for understanding the current media environment were Chris Hedges and Crispin Glover. I can hardly imagine stranger bedfellows existing anywhere except in theory. Noam Chomsky has been citing the text for a long time in talks, and has it down to boilerplate. The boilerplate, as printed as a preface to the online edition of Propaganda on History is a Weapon goes as follows:
[The] American business community was also very impressed with the propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on.
So what do you do? It’s going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller’s image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact, the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term “propaganda,” incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days. It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to “regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies.” These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques.
This is the main manual of the public relations industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didn’t smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the techniques—models and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.
Chomsky is pretty on point as usual here, except for his assertion that “propaganda” didn’t have a negative connotation in 1928. It at least had enough of one where Bernays felt like defending it against it. The Russians had already had their post-Bolshevik flush of posters and propaganda films and Bernays points out that at the very least “Bolshevik” was a loaded and politically pragmatic term to pull out at the time.
Not many years ago, it was only necessary to tag a political candidate with the word interests to stampede millions of people into voting against him, because anything associated with “the interests” seemed necessarily corrupt. Recently the word Bolshevik has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action.
More directly a little earlier in the book he says:
I am aware that the word “propaganda” carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.
Despite this, in every case this dangerous moral vacuum seems to be the next step in Bernays’s concatenation of thoughts, it’s smoothed over with some assurance of a natural ethical rightness in the selection of the “leaders of thought” who are charged with the task of actually leading the society by the “public mind.” Here we come to the rupture so to speak in Bernays’s book. First I’m going to let him dig the hole himself a little bit. Why should I waste the effort when he’s already done it for me?
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.
The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent, is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.
In some departments of our daily life, in which we imagine ourselves free agents, we are ruled by dictators exercising great power.
In fact, the repeated use of “dictator” and of “regiment” in various conjugations, along with the argument that follows these two paragraphs in the text arguing that propaganda is not deterministic or inherently authoritarian because one man might be subject to the determining opinions of many dozens of authoritative voices seems to prefigure Foucault’s notion of an “economy of discourse” and the similarly militaristic vocabulary Foucault uses to describe this economy in History of Sexuality V.1 among other works. This is interesting, though probably a subject for another essay.
The actual notion of a democracy controlled by the population (in essence, the notion of democracy), is thrown out by Bernays, and his alternative to a nation run on a select elite who understand how to manipulate public opinion sounds a lot like…well…a select elite who understand how to manipulate public opinion.
It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.
Bernays, trying to reconcile these two things, thinks the PR industry must become this “committee of wise men”, and after arguing in the first chapter that propaganda is a morally neutral practice, nevertheless always errs toward some sort of invisible hand guiding the morals of man when he gets in a sticky situation. Whether this is unconscious self-contradiction or an incredibly clever instance of the shape of the text mirroring the content is unclear. What the reader is left with however is pretty clear when logical/theoretical corners are cut and you end up with head-scratchers like this one:
Propaganda is potent in meeting unethical or unfair advertising. Effective advertising has become more costly than ever before.
Maybe the inherent contradiction in this passage was less clear in 1928 and before Thomas Ferguson’s investment theory of electoral politics. Yet issues of oligarchical control of the press was an issue that came up in the founding of the US Postal Service, and the reason for the initial massive subsidies to small publications that came through the USPS in its early years, subsidies documented in Robert W. McChesney’s The Problem of Media. “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.” etc. Bernays, evidently very versed in Freud and Jung given his conceptions of mass psychology, was apparently much less versed in Marx, or for that matter, the founding fathers.
Bernays, though 30 years early on this, ushers in a McLuhan style rebuke as well in this description of the propaganda “machine”:
But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline.
This is a flawed and rather arrogant analogy to draw-all one has to do is look at the massive failure of the “New Coke” campaign to see that advertising hardly works with the dependability of a car. However, the technology metaphor does undercut the moral rightness element of the tools of propaganda that Bernays tries to foster in spite of his own testimony to the contrary. From a McLuhanesque reading, the symbol of the car would also invite an inherent contradiction in the metaphor-that even the elite control the social impact of this car or propaganda technique entirely is a ridiculous notion-the technology has associated with it extensions and amputations. The introduction of mass PR has an effect on the organization and values of society independent of how it’s consciously implemented. As Fredric Jameson has suggested, it brings about the linguistic relativism that isn’t in fact “poststructuralist” but is in fact the manifestation of late capitalism.
Bernays actually invokes, without much consciousness of his invoking it, this very principle of unintended discursive/social results from a seemingly clearly defined ideological movement, suggesting the creation of PR firms is a necessary reaction to the trend of muckraking. The 1961 anthology The Muckrakers also suggests this in its introduction. Bernays lays it down like this:
Twenty or twenty-five years ago, business sought to run its own affairs regardless of the public. The reaction was the muck-raking period…In the face of an aroused public conscience the large corporations were obliged to renounce their contention that their affairs were nobody’s business. If to-day big business were to seek to throttle the public, a new reaction similar to that of twenty years ago would take place and the public would rise and try to throttle big business with restrictive laws. Business is conscious of the public’s conscience.
For Occupy, the meat of the book comes in the sixth chapter, wherein Bernays argues for a breakdown of the difference in methods of say, selling soap or silk, and selling a political candidate. A ridiculous metaphysical assertion, backed only by the then current trends in sociology, kicks off the proceedings:
No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.
This would also serve well as a statement of the book’s thesis. Though Bernays’s reasoning is largely sound and has been borne out by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama campaigns, as Chris Hedges or Thomas Ferguson are quick to point out, Bernays misses the implication that, there is no need for the candidates using his methods to tell the truth or anything resembling it if his theories are correct. If the power to sway the public lay in swaying their “leaders” and through narrative and dramaturgical suggestion aimed at the subconscious or toward a clipped moment of reasoning leading to a predetermined conclusion, there’s no reason the candidate couldn’t just create a fictional narrative. As the types of narratives go, this is a popular one. And more largely, with mass media, that leaders of opinion couldn’t just be installed by those with the most money and access to mass media outlets. And this is just what’s happened. As Jon Jost put it, American politics very much resemble Kabuki theater.
Bernays one stumble in entirely laying out the modern methods of advertising is in chapter six. He argues there must be a concrete connection between the narrative object and the subject being sold. Five minutes of TV would easily disprove this now. Bernays doesn’t really get the concept of branding. Oh well, it was 1928. And actually, to be fair, he hints toward it, describing the relationship between issues, the candidate, and the prospective voter:
In theory, this education might be done by means of learned pamphlets explaining the intricacies of public questions. In actual fact, it can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of their publics.
In particular “dramatizing personalities” stands out. If you’re looking for a quote for a picture meme to annoy your friends, family, and random strangers with on Facebook or Reddit, you could do worse than Bernays’s summary thesis of the chapter, “Good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold.” Sadly true.
I could probably write another 2000 words on this book, but this post is getting overlong as it is, so I’m going to close out on one last point: Jesus fucking christ was this guy a misogynist! Some choice bits:
The professional woman politician has had, up to the present, not much influence, nor do women generally regard her as being the most important element in question. Ma Ferguson, after all, was simply a woman in the home, a catspaw for a deposed husband; Nellie Ross, the former Governor of Wyoming, is from all accounts hardly a leader of statesmanship or public opinion.
A club interested principally in homemaking and the practical arts can sponsor a cooking school for young brides and others. An example of the keen interest of women in this field of education is the cooking school recently conducted by the New York Herald Tribune, which held its classes in Carnegie Hall, seating almost 3,000 persons. For the several days of the cooking school, the hall was filled to capacity, rivaling the drawing power of a McCormack or a Paderewski, and refuting most dramatically the idea that women in large cities are not interested in housewifery.
Just as women supplement men in private life, so they will supplement men in public life by concentrating their organized efforts on those objects which men are likely to ignore. There is a tremendous field for women as active protagonists of new ideas and new methods of political and social housekeeping.
Oy. Anyway, any thoughts are appreciated in the comments section. I think the next book I’m going to do for this series is either Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” or PT Barnum’s autobiography.
(First, if you haven’t checked out my memoir of the first incarnation of OWS, what are you waiting for? All the cool kids are doing it!)
There is something about piling up money that makes people want to write books. I’m not sure why. What reputation these books have is mostly determined by how well liked the person was as a public figure. In terms of genre, they should, for the most part, be lumped in with Self-Help books. The idea is that the person with money, whatever insane or illogical points are laying around in their head, now condescends to share them with a presumed audience ready to eat them up. These points have, of course, become immediately valid and wise because they’re around money.
Not that I’m complaining. I’m a fan of a godawful book cover as much as anyone, and with no checks on ego in these projects, you get some of the absolute worst.
The all time master of the awful book cover though is homophobic founder of Chick Fil-A S. Truett Cathy. These are only a sampling.
Incidentally, that book happens to have perhaps my favorite sentence ever to be put in an Amazon review: “Why so much of the back pages are filled with her thoughts on European living, I don’t know.”
Anyhow, this is all a set-up to the latest book to receive attention from the NY Times Magazine that doesn’t deserve the attention of anyone who lived through Ronald Reagan or caught up with him through Wikipedia. Mitt Romney’s former partner at Bain Capital Edward Conard has written a Reaganomics book about 25 years late, and the NY Times doesn’t even recognize the similarity enough to even once in 6 pages mention the dreaded r-word. Why is this book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong of any interest to the informed reader? Outside the Mitt Romney connection, the NY Times doesn’t really say.
Conard’s thesis, according to The Times is this:
Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don’t know how the economy really works — that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone. “Most citizens are consumers, not investors,” he told me during one of our long, occasionally contentious conversations. “They don’t recognize the benefits to consumers that come from investment.”
Umm…what?? Besides the obvious flaws in logic, what Conard made his fortune on wasn’t even investment in consumers. The Village Voice writes:
His formula was simple: Bain would purchase a firm with little money down, then begin extracting huge management fees and paying Romney and his investors enormous dividends.
Conard makes his case much differently, and tellingly, entirely in the abstract:
Take computers, for example. A small number of innovators and investors may have earned disproportionate billions as the I.T. industry grew, but they got that money by competing to constantly improve their products and simultaneously lower prices. Their work has helped everyone get a lot more value. Cheap, improved computing helps us do our jobs more effectively and, often, earn more money. Countless other industries (travel, telecom, entertainment) use that computing power to lower their prices and enhance their products. This generally makes life more efficient and helps the economy grow.
First note that his argument here, and the emphases, say essentially “big business is good since it allows for more big business.” I’ll let Marshall McLuhan field that one. “But maybe the chicken is just the egg’s way of making more eggs…”
And of course the Times never mentions that the bulk of development on the computer came from government funding, thereby furthering the false notion that the great forward strides in technology were the product of some Ayn Rand-style adversity. And besides this, what Conard made his money on had nothing to do with this sort of narrative, whether it’s true or false.
In support of Conard, the Times brings up economist Dean Baker, who trots out the questionable assertion that “for every dollar an investor earns, the public receives the equivalent of $5 of value.” Where did he pull this number from? Can anyone tell me?
This iffy number isn’t good enough for Conard, who figures if he’s going to stick his foot in his mouth he might as well deep throat it. On the strength of an argument about agribusiness (the world outside the United States and the various issues surrounding Monsanto of course don’t figure in here), Conard claims that the return to the consumer is actually $20 to every $1 of investor capital. His book, unavailable for me to parse at the moment, is going to need 1) way more than one example to prove that point, and 2) some sort of explanation how being able to buy cheap crap helps anyone who’s long-term unemployed. Somehow I doubt these things are there.
The revisionist history goes on with little comment or correction from the Times.
The financial crisis, he writes, was not the result of corrupt bankers selling dodgy financial products. It was a simple, old-fashioned run on the banks, which, he says, were just doing their job.
Wait…what? Then how do you explain the knowingly misleading ratings given to all these derivatives and securities by ratings firms like Standard and Poor? That the products were literal definitions of fraud?
It should be pointed out now the great editorial strength of The New York Review of Books over The NY Times Magazine or the daily NY Times. If the NYRB thought Conard’s book was worth commenting on, they would find an expert in economics who would then parse the arguments and their counters. The NY Times meanwhile, thinks the best way to verify the validity of a book or product they’re covering is to send someone out and tell the reader how the author eats his lunch. (“Over lunch…(Conard) looks like a benign middle-aged guy until he starts making an argument. At which point, Conard stares into your eyes and talks with intense force, punctuated by the occasional profanity, in full paragraphs.”)
The worth of ideas presented to them, as in most TV news programs, is their potential as PR coups. For example:
As I read “Unintended Consequences,” though, I wondered if the book would have the opposite effect. Even staunch Republicans and many members of the Tea Party might bristle at a worldview that celebrates the coastal elite and says many talented people in the middle class aren’t pulling their weight. Was Conard saddling his old boss with another example of how out of touch those with car elevators and multiple Cadillacs can be?
Meanwhile, criteria of critical engagement seem to be largely satisfied for the Times writer (in this instance and plenty others), by saying they also had lunch with those opposing the ideas presented by the subject of the article.
I first met Conard last fall, around the same period in which I was spending a lot of time in Zuccotti Park, interviewing anti-Wall Street protesters who argued that people like him were destroying our democracy.
Arguments against Conard are left in the article’s last two pages, and aren’t given much space to stretch out. Author Adam Davidson seems eager to break free of the Times’ lunch based aesthetic, but the biggest flaw he’s able to point out is that “crony capitalism” exists in the United States, something Conard outright denies. But there are so many other gaps that seem much more interesting than expending several hundred words giving us a cleaned up and inaccurate biography of Conard.
(Have you checked out my book on the 1st incarnation of OWS? You should, it’s getting quite excellent reviews. Check it out!)
The reason Occupy has seemed quiet in the past month despite the rather precocious shift in the weather is the General Strike and day of action that has been in preparation for some time now. We’re taking back Mayday!
Mayday itself has a long history that extends far beyond the time when there was anything resembling a labor movement, in fact, there were Mayday celebrations (though not called Mayday, at least in any dialect we’d understand), before the advent of the modern calendar. It’s where the mayqueen comes from.
In 80 countries across the world, May 1st is International Workers’ Day, though in the US we have Labor Day as a rough equivalent. However, to show the international scope of Occupy, a lot of things are planned for this Tuesday. Here are my picks for what to do on Tuesday:
~12am: Police Harassment at Union Square and the Federal Building on Wall Street. This isn’t an official event, but I’m sure it’s going to happen. A good one to get in on for all you Occupy night owls, and pretty sure street cred for those desiring some.
7-9am: Don’t go to work or school. Easy enough. Bonus points if you work somewhere large, corporate, evil, and/or anti-labor. Wal-Mart workers, Verizon workers, Urban Outfitters workers, etc., this means you especially. Though NYC doesn’t have any Wal-Mart employees, many other parts of the country do and are having their own events. Check your local listings.
8am: 99 Pickets, various locations. This one is going to be in a lot of places, certainly enough to find one to enjoy. Less than 99, but then, that might end up spreading things sorta thin. I should also note some of them are starting at 7am too, and that different ones have been happening over the past week. Their tumblr, the last link posted here, will have much more information and specifics on this than I will.
8am-2pm: Pop-up Occupation at Bryant Park, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, Manhattan. The Occupied Wall Street Journal describes this as “A family-friendly meet-up in the park with free food, skillshares, teach-ins, and public art.” I’m most interested in the teach-ins, and hopefully the amount of promotion that has gone into the May 1st events will snare some interesting and competent teach-ins. Otherwise, I’ve been a bit let down by the last couple “Pop-up Occupations”, which have seemed too table-heavy. Still worth checking out.
10am-3pm: Free University. A series of free lectures at Madison Square Park on Broadway and 23rd, easily accessible by the N and R trains, also only 2 blocks from the Baruch College campus, making it very convenient for me, so I’ll probably be there. According to their twitter feed, the two big names they have are Robert Robinson, not the dead baptist apparently but a representative from Take Back the Land, a pro-housing organization, and Laura Whitehorn, a former member of the Weathermen and political prisoner. Should be interesting.
1pm: Wildcat March at 2nd Street and Houston Ave. This one I got a flier for and I’m not really sure what the deal is. The flier says “strikeeverywhere.net” and not Occupy Wall Street on it. Their website says in the call for the march:
We were told by a bosses, by activists, by union leaders we couldn’t strike. Perhaps, they suggested, if we wanted to protest we could carry a sign and walk within police barricades, safely cordoned off in a free speech zone. On May 1st, we aren’t working and we aren’t protesting. We are striking.
The typos are theirs, not mine. And not really sure what activists were saying people couldn’t strike, seeing how all anyone with Occupy has been saying for months is “Strike May 1st!” But I suppose the nonspecific persecution narrative is one that still has some cultural capital-I fully expect their next missive to read “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDIES (sic) STRIKE!” as we approach the anarchist zine-Doritos bag convergence of prose stylistics (to be followed by a bright beam of light and reality collapsing in on itself.)
4pm: Convergence in Union Square, 14th and Broadway. Here’s where we get down to brass tacks. I’ve been hearing less than academic estimates of everything from 10-90,000 people. Either way, we’ll probably never know any more than you ever find out how many jelly beans are in those “Guess How Many Jelly Beans are in the Jar!” jars in deli windows. Still fun, and a big event. A good place to meet people and reacquaint oneself with old Occupy friends.
5:30pm: March from Union Square to Wall Street. This is the big one. Let’s see if we can beat the supposed 50k in the Times Square March or the November 17th 32k. A long and spirited walk, in some of the most interesting and spirited parts of Manhattan. Forecasts are predicting morning rain and an overcast day, so prepare accordingly. Expect some arrests at Zuccotti, and increased police presence the closer the march gets to Wall Street, especially since they know where the march is headed. Police behavior will also probably hinge heavily on protester attendance. The more people, the more they risk losing control of the crowd.
6:30pm-May 2nd: Jail Support. This is another one that isn’t an official event, but there will definitely be arrests, and the good folks at OWS Jail Support are probably going to be busy late into the night. Why not give them a hand? They’ll most likely be at 1 Police Plaza. My computer is being a pain in the ass right now and refusing to load nycga.net, but you can find them there, check it out.
In non-Occupy news, Saratoga rock n roll legends (and soundtrack to much of my early teens) The Figgs have been together 25 years! And though tempted to trot some twaddle, “The 1% makes us all Bad Luck Sammies!”, “Sammie-Uncle Sam, the song is a subtle portrait of a troubled America…”, and so on, I’ll resist the itch and simply say it’s a damn catchy rock song. Congrats to Gent, Donnelly and Hayes.
And come to think of it, this is off the excellent Banda Macho, their second CD, which was released and then dropped like a hot potato by 1%ers Capitol Records. So it does kinda fit.
(If you haven’t already (and if you have, thanks for the support), check out my memoir of the inaugural Occupy fall, now on sale at Amazon.)
Two weeks ago my father sent me a series of enthusiastic text messages regarding conservative “social scientist” Charles Murray. Apparently there was an appreciative retrospective article done in Time Magazine about him. The name didn’t sound familiar, but with a little research I remembered who he was.
I wrote back to my father:
A cursory search of Wikipedia gives me two immediate red flags. They are:
1) He is employed by the American Enterprise Institute. This is a very shady institution. As their Wikipedia page puts it: “AEI is the most prominent think tank associated with American neoconservatism, in both the domestic and international policy arenas.”
2) In his book The Bell Curve he makes claims that amount to modern race science. “Much of the controversy erupted from Chapters 13 and 14, where the authors write about the enduring differences in race and intelligence and discuss implications of that difference. The authors were reported throughout the popular press as arguing that these IQ differences are genetic. The authors write in the introduction to Chapter 13 that “The debate about whether and how much genes and environment have to do with ethnic differences remains unresolved,” while also saying that “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.'” I’d have to read the chapters in question to say whether or not that is completely accurate, but it seems, well, to use their terms, highly likely.
“Welfare has definitely stripped the middle class and underclass of it’s dignity and stake” (a quote from the text message) sounds like the sort of argument that gets people who have nothing to actually gain from a Republican administration to vote Republican. If you make it about “dignity” etc., you play off pride, which is incredibly important to people who don’t own much else and therefore a key means of controlling the working class rhetorically. Listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, they’re making pretty similar arguments but at a louder volume.
Everyone I know on welfare isn’t really factoring it into their dignity or idea of having “a stake” at all. Why do people not feel like they have a stake in the current system? My guesses would be the following:
1)The social contract has been broken because the rule of law no longer holds. For the underclass (urban minorities etc.), the second they’ve been stopped and frisked without a warrant, they’re going to feel like the system has no stake in them and that any chance for dignity they have is in spite of said system. For the economically oppressed, when they find out their taxes are going toward graft (the war) and that the economic upper class aren’t paying their fair share of these taxes, they feel like the government isn’t representing their interests. In either instance, the sense that the government is anything besides a barrier of protection for the upper class can only be sustained through outlets of rhetoric like Fox News or any of the conservative think tanks.
2)The elections seem too rigged by money for voting to feel like anything more than an empty exercise at best, at worst a fraudulent act helping to cover up the rigged nature of said elections.
3)We’re a culture built politically around a creation myth, namely that of The American Revolution. This myth emphasizes repeatedly that government is only justified in its existence insofar as it serves the needs of the population of said country (Thomas Paine says as much in the first 5 pages of Common Sense, and no one who has gone to school past the 4th grade is unfamiliar with “No taxation without representation!”) The first two points, seen through the lens of this myth, seem like a) betrayals, which invalidate the idea of America and leave the citizen ideologically adrift or b) an argument that America isn’t actually the current government, that the current government is therefore invalid and filled with impostors. The recent wave of Founding Father fetishizing is a manifestation of the second feeling.
Though I never did find the Time Magazine article he was referring to, I did find a review of Murray’s most recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 at the New York Review of Books. It’s pretty damning, and also quite entertaining. Murray is in fact one of the few remaining race “scientists” and his most recent book seems to have a date put in the title mostly so confused readers don’t justifiably, having taken in the ideas discussed, think the book was written some time around 1900.
Andrew Hacker’s review begins with a sentence that speaks to his enthusiasm: “Charles Murray has written another book about race.” Note the similarity in construction to “The kids left another mess in the kitchen.” or “The dog chewed up another one of my shoes.” With a calm bemusement Hacker goes through the books numerous ridiculous claims.
He charges large swaths of “white America”—his designation—with indolence, self-indulgence, and failing to understand the nation’s “founding virtues” of honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religion.
Where do we find said “founding virtues”? Nowhere in The Constitution or The Declaration of Independence. Maybe in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick? Or 1950s educational film reels?
This thesis might be acceptable with some evidence, or excusable if the book weren’t a dishonest mashing together of suspect statistics and memories of an older America seemingly plagiarized from Leave it to Beaver and Andy Griffith reruns. Someone needs to block TV Land from Mr. Murray’s cable package. Hacker explains that the statistics are set up to focus on, after narrowing the candidates for study to those who responded “white” and only “white” on the Census (specifically excluding Hispanics), only those families making $135,724 dollars a year or more or $52,057 a year or less. This is problematic, says Hacker, because “No discussion is given to the remaining 50 percent, which is odd, since they are literally mid-America and cast most of the votes in presidential elections.” Seems like quite a problem!
Murray is worried there is a social rift between the rich and poor in this country. Fair enough, I’d agree with that. But how to show this? I’m not making this up:
Murray supports his point by setting his upscale readers a quiz: When did they last watch Judge Judy or dine at a downmarket Applebee’s?
Downton Applebee’s, an American chamber drama, a study of class consciousness considered, coming to PBS this fall. But seriously, I honestly can’t remember the last time I did either, and I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the lower income portion of Murray’s study. Maybe it’s a product placement? If so, I hope Applebee’s didn’t pay too much for it…
Murray then goes on to claim the issue is that the underclass is too resentful of the upper class, and creates a theoretical family of four “living comfortably” on $26k a year. This is insane.
In part three of the review, Hacker goes over Murray’s strong nudging in the text that there is a “genetic” tie to white performance in society. How do we determine genetic inheritance? According to Murray, by what people wrote on the census. According to a friend of mine who worked the census, multiple people wrote their race as “Muppet”. Mo’ pages mo’ problems! (And let’s not even begin on the fact race is a cultural invention…)
Murray goes on to mangle statistics further. In 2005, out of 31 million corporations, proprietors and partnerships that sent in tax returns, only 217 were given civil tax fraud penalties. Murray sees this as a sign of upper class honesty in the US, and besides that, given the locus of his study, is presuming all corporations, proprietors, and partnerships are a) making more than $137k a year, and b) are composed of “white” people. Black people can own businesses too, and Murray has no excuse on this count, since TV Land has shown Sanford and Son reruns.
Murray finds an…unorthodox scapegoat for his claimed decline of the “white race” in America. Says Hacker: “Apart from blaming Lyndon Johnson, he seeks no deeper explanation behind his race’s fall from grace.”
And this man, Charles Murray, is employed and comfortable. If this is the best the right can do for academics, I can understand their generalized distaste for “academic elitism”.
First off, you should all check out my book on the Occupy fall. It’s funny, quick, and people seem to like it so far. Check it out.
My good friend from Occupy and all-around terrific lady D posted this to Facebook today and it evinced some thoughts I feel like sharing. D wrote the following status:
realized from watching livestream that OWS has splintered so badly, it is hurting itself. how very sad. nobody thought to take care of each other. now we can all watch the demise of our movement on livestream while terribly sleep-deprived kids talk about nonsense and violence. Sad.
A series of comments followed, from which I’m only going to post D’s since the rest while not malignant or bad or anything, weren’t especially substantial.
Comment 1: ouch is right. those poor, sleep-deprived kids. the organizers lead them to a place then abandon them.
Comment 2: the organizers lead an action and if it doesn’t work out well, they leave and do something new. we’re creating a wake of destruction. homeless folks are worse off because we’re around. they have fewer places to sleep. damn.
Comment 3: They need young leaders.
These are well articulated but fairly common criticisms. I think she’s right about the organizers, who in my experience retreated to the office space as soon as it was opened up. The office space is closed now, and as far as I can tell they haven’t been at the subsequent encampments, first at Union Square, currently at the Federal Building on Wall Street itself. They’ve been busy planning for May Day and planning actions and marches. This is a good, but at the risk of kicking something while it’s down, not enough, and I would currently consider OWS to be in an advanced decline (I can’t speak for other Occupations, though I went to Occupy New Haven last week and it looked like one of those movies that starts after the bomb already dropped. The guy who put himself in front of the bulldozer during the attempted eviction gets my eternal kudos though.)
So why did it fall apart?
I’m extremely tempted to put most of the blame on Bloomberg and Ray Kelley and DHS for their organized eviction of Zuccotti Park. This certainly didn’t help, but to look for an all-encompassing explanation in this seems untrue to my personal observations. Things were splintering in the park long before the eviction. Why was this?
Many will point toward hired agent provocateurs (AP’s) and undercover police (UC’s). Again, these don’t help, but they also don’t encompass why it would congeal so much. My personal thesis is that the park allowed a lot of people with very strong political views to clump, and same way soured milk comes out in unattractive chunks only to finally drain in the sink, this made for a tense atmosphere filled with many misconceptions based on almost entirely social epistemologies. As Thomas Pynchon writes in Gravity’s Rainbow:
SAKALL: Vell, ve’re both seeing him. That means he’s real.
RATHBONE: Joint hallucination is not unknown in our world podner.
The mob mentality will frequently mistake the mentally ill, those with serious anger problems, and the insistently eccentric with AP’s and UC’s. I’m not especially concerned with any social persecution toward these individuals this might cause-if you’re throwing chairs at meetings or screaming you’re going to kill anybody that comes by, AP or UC is irrelevant-you’re inhibiting the encampment’s ability to do what it’s supposed to do and you should be removed. However, I am concerned how this enhances the perceived power of the outside forces or creates myths of innateness in human nature that make activism seem futile and ridiculous. To use Pynchon’s terminology again, we need as good a “we-system” as a “they-system”.
Commenting on D’s post, I wrote:
The invisible ethos of the culture sank the thing. The quick self-destruction and the relationship of protests to the culture at large reminds me a lot of what DF Wallace wrote about parodies of TV in the essay “E Pluribus Unum”, the vaguely postmodern solipsism that seems to repeat itself at large. DFW writes “What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of ‘real life’ made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”
Applied to Occupy, we run into a rut-we need mass support, and mass support means TV. We need people out there doing things, and we need them all to have a solid enough sense of an outside world to sense that there are consequences to their actions and what those consequences might be roughly. We need them to come in, not know each other, and be able to trust that everyone is at this level of awareness and that they act outside a social solipsism (be it a dreamscape where everything points to Trotsky or a dreamscape where everything points to Bakunin.) To have an entirely open membrane and expect this is noble but iffy in execution.
To connect on these points, the solipsism points to the applicability of the DFW paragraph.
I tried to articulate the idea forming in my head to my friend Justin in a chatroom. I put a – for each new message.
-The thesis I seem to be heading towards is:
-Pynchon speaks of “they systems” and “we systems” when he’s cataloging increasingly ridiculous conspiracy theories.
-My sense is that Occupy is riddled with too many “they systems”.
-(paranoia in the sense psychologists use it, that the subject has organized reality into an overly coherent but false system and thinks everything is connected)
-“they systems” because they conceive of a monolithic other, become inherently social solipsisms-they gather people who refine and then accept as dogma the notion of what “the other” is and usually either say this other has to be a) socially negated, or b) reversed in power position in the social order
-Not necessarily extremist or cultish though most visible in these forms.
ex.: RCP, trotsky-ites, ghandians, etc.
-Black Bloc apologists, seeing an external threat (Chris Hedges), congeal and become more insular, the exact opposite of what I think Hedges wanted
-Deep Green Revolution is turning into this
-instead of the standard cult organization around a charismatic leader, the group defines themselves by a usually monolithic “they” that grows to have mythical powers the more the “they” is spoken about and the less they socialize outside the group
-They see forces in occupy suggesting other ideas as a threat to their agenda and a threat to the mass of humanity because of the perceived apocalyptic powers of their personal monolithic bogeyman
-Each faction grows more extreme and isolated, fearing every other faction in occupy is shortening the time for them to act by offering some sort of threatening critique
meanwhile most of the factions are actually working in the terms of the culture at large without realizing it, using the urgency of their mission to begin rationalizing unethical activities like hoarding/siphoning money from the general fund or grabbing at any sliver of perceiving social capital or attention
-(the decolonize movement seemed to be the first group to start doing this in Zuccotti)
-each “they system” is a solipsism at heart-creating a unified consciousness in members that necessarily simplifies their perceptual categories of organization
-and in order to maintain the “integrity” of such a group, has to spend most of its time proslytizing while necessarily remaining separate from actual structures of power for fear of compromise (local government etc.)
-their nature becomes like that of memes or amoebas-recreation for its own sake, and they lose political effectiveness
-the community mirrors the nature of internet communities and becomes a cocoon and therefore an escape and not a viable communal solution
-radicalism becomes a means of branding, activism becomes a means of gaining fame and “street cred” (think Ward Churchill)
-for the needy personality, the group needs to be radicalized so that the audience and social capital is consolidated for commercial or social gain
My thought this morning was that the initial power of Occupy, and the way it marked a radical historical shift, was that it was an organization cohered around specific grievances and not an ideology or teleology.
Anyone have any thoughts on this?