Monday 24 October 2011

#Occupy OnFiction

In the past few weeks, I have been closely watching, and also participating in, the Occupy movement. After a rather dry decade in terms of both street activism and also any evidence of concern on the part of the general populace about the dramatic gains being made both within countries and also globally in the distance between rich and poor, I have been struck by the remarkable cogency of the message being delivered by protestors (despite all defensive attempts to deny the movement coherence): they would like more social equality.

Enough opportunities have been opened by this movement to explain why that I can skip ahead to a brief discussion of #Occupy narrative. (Although I will say that I have perhaps never as much appreciated the validating nature of being on the side of a dominant culture narrative--along with its accompanying epistemological danger: if everyone agrees with me, I must be right! In addition, if you haven't been following any of the various Occupations, I'll exhort you to read up on them, particularly in the indie press; they're making good points salient to most people.)

As I have also been exhorting my classes (especially my course on globalization, more or less abstracted here in the links in this post) for years, the targets being taken on by various Occupy protests are large and obvious enough that the narrative thread is fairly available: the economic activities of the free market, despite all the attractive imagery of trickle-down economics and the tide rising all boats that was supposed to follow from that has not worked; instead it has dammed ever-larger proportions of world wealth in ever-smaller pockets of circulation. Even if some laggards have fallen behind on this message and insist that they really ARE part of the 1%, despite all indications to the contrary (particularly amusing in this and related schoolings), most people who are paying attention are understanding the basic message that power needs to be wrested away from the small cluster of financial giants controlling the world economy -- enough that a wide range of personal testimonials, succinct expressions of anger, and kind of random signs are all building a movement that, if you hadn't been paying attention to the financial sector taking over, would seem almost implausibly coherent.

No less than George Lakoff has weighed in on this coherence* (having impressively waited, first, though, a decent interval to allow the movement to express itself without people perceiving messaging "help" from corners like his): "From what I have seen of most members of OWS, your individual concerns all flow from one moral focus."

OWS is a moral and patriotic movement. It sees Democracy as flowing from citizens caring about one another as well as themselves, and acting with both personal and social responsibility. Democratic governance is about The Public, and the liberty that The Public provides for a thriving Private Sphere. From such a democracy flows fairness, which is incompatible with a hugely disproportionate distribution of wealth. And from the sense of care implicit in such a democracy flows a commitment to the preservation of nature.

To allow you, dear readers, some time to catch up on all these interesting analyses, I will keep my comments brief. However, having been mulling I have been curious about the cognitive processes that have gone into the development of the #Occupy narratives. Has the opportunity to read and hear about so many others' narratives about their own experience of being down and out, despite their best efforts, due to systemic barriers helped to transform a muddy set of complex financial arrangements into a personal experience people can identify with? Has something about the narrativization of the current financial crisis transformed it from an analysis people didn't want to hear about from social scientists like me into something people cannot wait to share the latest tidbit about on their facebook pages? For those of us interested in maintaining the momentum of this engagement with important progressive politics, it will be important to understand what enables different people to tell their stories of current experience and future vision in ways that engage with difficult politics (even the 99% in Canada and the U.S., for example, are still mostly in the world 1%, and the political implications of that probably come with enough cognitive dissonance reduction to sink the most agentic and fun-seeming promotional campaign possible). But while people are paying attention and trying to figure out what to do, this seems like an excellent moment to read some signs, listen to your local protestors, and figure out how implausibly aspirational change narratives that are usually relegated to the realm of fictional utopias become real for people.


Kathleen Wall said...

You might almost define democracy as the equal importance given to stories. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

no_slappz said...

The Occupy movement seems to boil down to wide-spread Primal Scream Therapy.

Meanwhile, the Occupy crowd is as befuddled about what would improve the country as almost everyone else.

Furthermore, as each day passes, the Occupy crowd inches closer and closer to becoming the society is claims to reject.

The same ponderous realities of democracy are bogging down the campers as they wrestle with conflicting and competing interests of all participants.

Any day now, they're going to create their own electoral college to expedite their rule-making and resource-allocation activities.

By the time the last of them go home, most will have learned that too much government is the problem and that too few people know enough about other peoples' businesses to enact laws that restrict those businesses and personal endeavors.

With respect to the fiscal problems of recent years -- in a nation of 50-60 million smokers, drinkers and gamblers, is it surprising that many gleefully and irresponsibly borrowed piles of money to buy houses?

No banker forced anyone to borrow a dollar to buy a house. But our irresponsible government mandated that lenders offer mortgages to people with lousy credit scores, weak job prospects and NO downpayment money.

Based on the absence of sound lending rules, how can anyone be surprised at the rampant real estate speculation and collapse that followed?

It's disturbing that people who borrowed too much are described as victims. That description would be okay if, by victims, it's meant they were victims of their own greed.

But down at Zuccotti Park I've seen no signs expressing anything like Mea Culpa.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Thanks for the comments; one of the things that seems valuable about this kind of public dialogue is that it encourages people to *tell* their stories of how they understand, for example, the political and financial systems to be working. Since the point of liberal democracies is that they are kind of ponderous--because, among other things, it takes a lot of narrative work to enable people with different values to agree on fair governance systems--it seems important for the people involved in all different ways in the #Occupy movement to be learning how to engage in this work.

I suspect you mean this in a somewhat dismissive way, no_slappz, but something like "primal scream therapy" may not be a bad place to start, as it may help someone understand what kinds of stories and practices associated with those seem oppressive, and might goad people to figure out what kinds of different ones could be worked toward. (From that perspective, if a larger percentage of the population that currently gets involved in government worked to recreate a new electoral college with revised rules and regulations--even if it was not SO different from the current one--it might create a different kind of system to have those people involved, and to have created the cultural competence for and removed the structural barriers to their participation.)

Without getting into the details (which are well represented in the links in the above post, and which I highly recommend for anyone who has not considered the differences between the American and Canadian lending systems and their relative stability [or who thinks that 'the absence of sound lending rules' has to do with anything other than deregulation very much encouraged by bankers], especially those explaining the credit crisis: &, I will point out how much I value the opportunity to *discuss* my disagreement with your perspective on the relative culpabilities of financial industry participants and individuals who smoke, drink, or gamble.

I recognize that our differences probably have a lot to do with the fact that your line of work has to do with finance and my line of work has to do with social justice, and the stories we and our colleagues use to make sense of the world are probably significantly different--and, I suspect, especially in the world of increasingly narcissistic e-society, don't have enough opportunity to genuinely cross-pollinate and grow to respond to each others' challenges.

So while this may not be the most obvious place to debate the merits of capitalism and democracy (which are both extraordinary tools for promoting equality and well-being and also tools that can be used for violence and exploitation--and this is the role of the moral stories Lakoff and Haidt refer to, to constitute the moral economies that keep our actions within some bounds of collective determined acceptability), there may be some important things we can learn from fiction and psychology (particularly given the importance to the current crisis of fictive commodities like derivatives!) that give us guidance when we realize we need to do things like rewrite our moral economy.

no_slappz said...

You wrote:

(From that perspective, if a larger percentage of the population that currently gets involved in government worked to recreate a new electoral college...

The electoral college elects only the president and vice president.

Are you suggesting the wrong man won in 2008?

Or that we'd be living in a different America if Al Gore had been elected in 2000?

The defining moment was 9/11. What would Gore have done? We'll never know. But he would have taken the advice of his Joint Chiefs.

Would he have invaded Iraq? Probably not. And due to Gore's probable restraint, we can consider that all the arab leaders recently driven out of office would still be in charge.

Maybe Osama bin Laden would still be alive in Pakistan.

But one thing is certain, Gore would have advocated for loose mortgage standards, which means our current financial crisis would have occurred if he were president.

One aspect of politics that seems to have escaped everyone in the OWS crowd is the very simple reality of why politicians are elected.

Senators and Representatives are elected because they promise to go to Washington and bring back as much tax-revenue as they possibly can.

Farm subsidies, defense contracts, infrastructure funding -- you name it, our elected officials go to Washington to get that money and bring it home.

There are no high-minded discussions of morality or thoughtful analyses of tricky problems.

However, those with the OWS mindset seem to believe that voters, if only they could be shown the way, would trade the flow of government tax revenue into their communities for some undefined and abstract ideal.

Unfortunately, there's little historical evidence to suggest anything so momentous has ever occurred in this country.

Moreover, as someone who went down to Zuccotti Park and talked to OWSers, it was obvious they have no knowledge of economics, finance, science or engineering.

The scary part about democracy is the fact that people who know nothing about complex subjects are oftem empowered to make decide which way to go when those subjects are to be acted on.

But, that's the way we do things, so we live with the bungling, and most of the time, people -- outside politics -- who know what they're doing, become leaders of businesses and industries that make reasonable decisions and go in the right direction.

In short, the luckiest person in the world is the person born in the US -- today.

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