Just a few months ago, the idea of large numbers of Americans out in the streets engaging in a radically democratic working-class protest movement, would have seemed only a dream. After a long ten years of anti-Muslim and Arab hysteria, the idea that these very folks would be claiming inspiration from the Arab world, saying, in effect, we want to be like them, would have struck me as totally ridiculous. And the idea that the national conversation would have turned to questions of — American taboo that it is — class, well, there is no way I would have believed that could happen.
So I’m as thrilled about Occupy Wall Street as everyone else who’s been waiting all their lives for something like this to bubble up. And the “let a thousand flowers bloom” multiplicity of left message is quite important, especially at this stage. However, part of the larger conversation has to center around what we mean when we talk about class, now that we’re talking about it. We may as well start with Marx.
All my undergrads know something that I fear at least some of the demonstrators do not — that, as Marx says in Capital, “capital is not a personal, but a social power.” The logic of corporations — the incessant push for profit and growth, and the complete irrelevance of qualitative values like clean water or happiness to the algorithm of exploitation through which profit happens — is just not about rich people. No matter how rich or greedy or nasty they may be (and I detest the Kochs as much as anybody does), they shouldn’t be the target. People and corporations are not the same. That’s actually the whole point.
In fact, identifying particular rich assholes comes perilously close to the “bad apple” discourse that, for so many years, passed for analysis of the precursors to our current crisis — Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, etc. It’s not the system that’s bad, we were told, it’s just a couple of “bad apples.” Once they’re punished, everything will be all good. Of course, this was nonsense. People weren’t being “bad.” Corporations were doing business, in an environment increasingly favorable to them.
And as the right loves to point out, identifying wealthy baddies and targeting them, in whatever way, comes perilously close to the kind of all-too-common revolution that’s based on resentment and envy. One that aims to take down rather than to build up. And one that stops being democratic pretty early in the game. At this moment in history, it’s kind of important that we remember that Nazism was National Socialism, all about getting back at the bankers (yup, Jewish) who were taking all the money. Just because the right wing brings it up doesn’t mean it’s not true.
There are two palpable forces out in the streets of America today. One is zinging with hope and energy, and the other — in danger, I’m afraid, of co-opting the first — animated by what Nietzsche called ressentiment. So much of the future depends on which side makes its case most powerfully and comes to represent the vibe of the movement. We can smash bad apples, or we can plant trees that bear truly powerful fruit.
If you’re feeling pissed off at the rich, take comfort in how they must be quaking in their boots right about now. (They really asked for this with their hyper-greedy behavior — you can’t have these levels of inequality without the kind of anger we’re seeing.) That’s fun for a minute, but the movement has bigger fish to fry. When Marx said that all history is the history of class struggle, he was referring to the power of that which is the opposite of the cold, calculating logic of capital.
What Stanley Aronowitz has called the counterlogic of the working class — the desire for freedom, pleasure, and connection — is what materially opposes the logic of capital. The new movement has to embrace this. Many of the signs in Zuccotti Park do. And they’re the ones I gravitate toward.
It’s time for the movement to make a choice to elevate the parts of it that affirm the kind of world we want to live in — one in which not the profit motive but people’s desire to live and live happily is a dominant force. Once we do this, we can begin to organize the considerable leverage that our side has to press our demands — for clean air and water, for no more bullshit wars, for shorter hours of labor, to name a few I like.
The 1% has gotten more than their share of everything already. Let’s not give them all the attention of our movement, too. Remember, it’s about us. Not them.