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Saturday, November 26, 2011

99 AND 44/100% PURE

The senior citizens among my faithful readers will recognize the phrase. It was the advertizing slogan of Proctor and Gamble's most successful product line, Ivory Soap. No one had the slightest idea what it meant [or what the other 0.56% was!], but it stuck in people's minds and became a catchphrase instantaneously recognizable.

This old slogan ascended from the depths of my capacious mind as I was reflecting on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which has just passed its tenth week of life. "We are the 99%" is a political slogan of sheer brilliance. It instantly and unforgettably unites virtually the entire nation against a tiny coterie of what Theodore Roosevelt once memorably called "malefactors of great wealth." Pettifoggers and nitpickers have quibbled with the numerical accuracy of the slogan, suggesting that the top one percent includes people who ought not to be demonized [such as Steve Jobs and LeBron James, or indeed Warren Buffett and Bill Gates], but that just shows that they do not understand the mobilizing power of the well-chosen epithet. "The ninety-nine percent" is what in Hollywood they call "high concept." [a High Concept is a phrase less than a sentence long that captures the idea being pitched by a movie writer to a producer -- "Godzilla meets the Hulk" or "The Wizard of Oz with Jim Carrey playing Dorothy." That sort of thing.]

The OWS Movement has already won. In ten weeks, it is completely changed the focus of the public conversation in America, from debt reduction and Congressional deadlock to income inequality. That is a simply extraordinary victory, achieved completely without the big money backing that launched and sustained the Tea Party Movement.

The response of cities around the nation has been entirely predictable, and for the most part advantageous to the movement -- first puzzlement, then irritation, then legal action, then pepper spray and mass arrests. There is something wonderfully predictable in the responses of the Establishment to a raucous yell, a middle finger, or a gathering that proclaims itself to be against something. From the point of view of a protest movement, the one totally unacceptable response is to be ignored. There is really never any good reason why protestors should not be ignored. The original OWS group took over a park that New Yorkers had never heard of. Had the media taken no notice of them, no one would ever have known they were there. Mayors and Police Chiefs and Governors always say that a protest is a threat to "public order," but the truth is that even a large protest is a good deal less disruptive of anything at all than a medium sized snowstorm, not to speak of a hurricane.

Happily for the forces of progress, the entrenched and comfortable can almost always be counted on to lose their cool after only a few days during which someone, anyone, is calling their bona fides into question. For reasons that go very deep into the psychopathology of power, a violation of social norms of polite behavior is more threatening to the powerful than a calm, reasoned, devastating argument. An unanswerable critique grounded in Marx's theory of exploitation creates not a ripple in the calm waters of institutional domination. But dropping one's pants or painting one's face or even, as during the '68 Columbia protests, calling the President of the University by his first name, drives the powerful wild.

I say "almost always" because on occasion, although happily not often, the powers that be exhibit a modicum of intelligence. I am reminded of Vassar College, which I visited in 1970 to give a talk. Some students, inspired by events on other campuses, had "seized" the Administration Building [which is to say, they had sat down in it and declared the building liberated.] Now, anyone who has spent a career in Academe knows that very little of any importance goes on in a College Administration Building. If it burned to the ground with everyone in it, several years might pass before it was thought necessary to find a replacement. The President of Vassar, learning from the mistakes of Grayson Kirk at Columbia and other fellow administrators, chose to take no notice of the students [who, by the way, slipped out of the building on occasion to attend classes and take exams.] Frustrated, the students issued their final non-negotiable demand -- they insisted that the faculty Senate acknowledge the fact that they were conducting a sit-in.

Now that the OWS Movement has decisively changed the direction of public commentary, where will it go next? Not surprisingly, all the usual suspects have been busy telling the Movement what they ought to do in order to be "relevant." Happily, the very large number of people engaged in one of the many actions folded under the umbrella of the movement seem to be ignoring the advice, and -- what is much more important -- the people giving it. What will the movement become? We shall have to wait and see [or, if we are part of the movement, we shall have to decide.]

The focus of the movement is not a discrete national action or policy, such as a war, but instead is the deepest structural fact about American society, namely far-reaching, institutionally embedded inequality of wealth and income. There are no easy "solutions" to this structural fact, akin to "bring the troops home." To change the shape of the American income pyramid would require a political and economic revolution so far-reaching, so deep, so transformational, that it would be puerile at this point to ask for a seven-point plan.

If you are an active part of the OWS Movement, I say thank you, and well done. If you are a supporter but not an active participant, like myself, then try to find some way to make the support material. We shall simply have to see what develops.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Lionel Blais said...


imcdpe said...

It's rather amusing to see how the UC Davis Chancellor's plan to get rid of a handful of tents backfired. There is now a whole 100-tent village on the Davis Quad, including port-a-potties, electric hook-ups, first-aid tent, and a 30-foot geodesic dome. Take a look.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It never fails! The cool thing would have been to come out and serve everybody soft drinks and cookies! There is all the difference in the world between a symbolic protest, like the OWS movement, and, for example, a union strike, which actually brings a factory to a halt. I have great hopes for the movement. I think it has legs, as they say.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Soft drinks and cookies? That sounds like a Kant seminar that I once took!

Graham Clay said...

I am not sure if I understand why you equate "cities around the nation" with "the Establishment" and why you see angry city governments as a sign of the success of the OWS movement. While the response of the cities does indeed strengthen the movement by providing the media with sensationalist fodder, angering more people to join the movement, etc., that does not mean that the OWS is wise to anger city governments. It seems to me that city governments do not have much to do with issues of economic inequality and the energy of the OWS movement would be better directed at the federal government. Although I shy away from using phrases like "the Establishment" since they only serve to muddle the complexity of these issues, I dare say that of all governmental entities in the USA, it's the federal government that would be best labeled as "the Establishment".

Scaling Factor said... has an interesting view of OWS.