American Amok

Democracy as a Fetish Object


The Anti-Crony Capitalist Commodity
We bought the donuts, fruit wraps and breakfast bars at Sam’s, stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts to get the coffee carafes, filled up our car and then drove the 30 miles to our local OWS encampment to do our part for the anti-Capitalists.


The occupation movement is on life support. It would wither like a daylily without the constant influx of cash from the Capitalist system it claims to despise. I claim that this is not only due to the fact that it has created no alternative economic model, but also because it has lost its focus in its fawning love of democracy.


Drowned out by the clamor of popular democratic protest, we seem to have forgotten that the fundamental flaw in our system isn’t representation – the people have literally never had more opportunities to communicate and affect social and corporate change via social media and the Internet – but instead economic.


A movement dedicated to overthrowing crony Capitalism would, you would imagine, devote quite a lot of time to thinking about alternative means of exchange. It might set up a sort of anti-credit based on voluntary social contracts, barter networks, co-operative non-hierarchical systems…


But the OWS movement’s shining economic achievements seem to be in mimicking existing “socialist” institutions – libraries and free schools, primarily – relying on volunteers who are so tied to the current system that they are essentially paying occupiers to take their place, and bringing business to local shops and restaurants. In total, these tactics offer fewer alternatives than a typical Phish reunion concert.


Any day now we will see the commemorative Frisbees and T-shirts appear on E-bay. Maybe they’re already being sold at larger venues like Boston or New York. When this happens, we will hear the predictable protests from would-be revolutionaries claiming the soul of the movement had been co-opted. It’s the 1960s all over again, they’ll cry, pointing not to Wall Street, but to Madison Avenue.


How did this happen?

Democracy Happened
Embedded in the organizational structure of OW, what will ultimately bring down the revolution isn’t ideological inconsistencies; it’s actually a consistent Capitalist worldview that underlies all the disparate groups. There is no reminder of economic alternatives – like the Black Panthers or the Diggers, for example, or even the anti-capitalism of the punk rejection – in the present composition of the group you are as apt to see empty gestures of democratic protest at an OWS rally as any viable cohesion against the financial-political power elite.


The notion that “participatory democracy” can save us from crony Capitalism seems obviously untrue from the start. Although crony Capitalist cultures can exist in totalitarian societies – China, for example – they have thrived in modern democracies, where each individual is an abstract, alienated being. The consumer subject must be free to consume. Indeed, for many, democratic freedom is only exercising your right to decide what to buy in the marketplace.


Say what you will about former president George Bush II, but he understood the link between late-Capitalism and Democracy. I don’t believe Bush was being cynical or ironic when he suggested that the answer to terrorism was replacing tribal anarcho-communist and totalitarian societies with democratic ones. I believe that he knew that the fastest way to crony Capitalism was through democracy.


“America, by decision and destiny, promotes political freedom — and gains the most when democracy advances. America believes in free markets and free trade — and benefits most when markets are opened,” he said in a 1999 Speech at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Bush knows a thing or two on how to create lasting crony Capitalism.

The Magic Flute
There’s a belief in the redemptive power of democracy that borders on superstition at work in the OWS movement. They think participatory democracy is so strong that it threatens all hierarchies and social divisions. This is why the General Assembly format isn’t so much a means of articulating shared beliefs about an anti-Capitalism movement as an opportunity to express your inner feelings.


In this way it doesn’t so much resemble a war cabinet managing revolutionary impulses as a sort of support group. “I’m upset that Don used a racial slur.” “I feel violated when people tell dirty jokes.” “I don’t feel respected by the tone of the present discussion.” Ad nauseum. At some meetings this infantilism is completed when the group bars political discussions all together because they might be “too divisive.”


This fruitless ceremony has no end, especially in smaller groups that lack the sufficient numbers to silence complainers by exerting social pressures. In that case one bitter, alienated, complaining individual lines up after another one, all driving further discussion into the ground. This is a church devoted to the god democracy and it doesn’t sound at all like a revolution waged against a state wedded to corporate powers.


The General Assembly is essentially a sort of rain dance, often accompanied by full drum circle. Like a rain dance, the ritual is formalized: There are specific gestures and motions, sacred words that must be spoken, even ceremonial costumes, flags and other props. Using the power of the people’s mic – really just a primitive Gregorian chant – the GA is an almost perfect evocation. The only problem is it’s trying to summons the wrong god.

Mommy, Your Dick is (not) Showing
So what is this all about really? Why are all these very smart, very unhappy people preoccupied with their freedom of expression (or putting parameters on expression) instead of the economic realities caused by a corrupt Capitalist system?


The fetish object’s primary function is to divert attention away from a disturbing underlying truth. Little Johnny takes subversive pleasure in looking up mommy’s dress and finds mommy’s dick is gone! Unable to face that truth (or the possibility that his own dick can be taken away), little Johnny affixes the transgressive pleasure / shock of this experience, not to mother’s snatch, but to another object, a shoe, say.


The fetish then both symbolizes completion – a time before little Jonny knew that mommy’s body wasn’t whole – and fracture – because now Johnny knows that something isn’t right in the world. The fetish now blocks the scene from Johnny. He thinks that he finds pleasure in the shoe, or pretends to think he finds pleasure from the shoe, and this prevents him from reliving the trauma associated with the true event.


Democracy is our fetish. We imagine that it can complete our system, that it brings lasting satisfaction, when in fact it has nothing at all to do with the current collapse. We obsess about losing freedom so that we do not have to confront the reality that we must give up the pleasures of Capitalism to survive. It is Capitalism, not democracy, that is driving us crazy, that will invariably destroy us, but we are dooming ourselves because we don’t dare to look directly at the crack over our heads.


This is not a contradiction that can be survived. Our individual Democratic demands can indeed be met (or appeased) by the combination of state and corporate interests, but our anti-Capitalist demands demand nothing less than a new system of exchange.


An Argument for Ambiguity

A or AuitymbigWhen news commentators interview Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists, the question of motive always comes into play. ‘How can we please you if you don’t tell us exactly what you want?’ they ask, meaning: ‘How can we put this protest to bed if you don’t give us something to dismiss?’

It’s not enough when protesters say they want to do nothing short of change the world. For the most part, the media can’t handle the notion that Capitalism can be overturned seriously and demand a crasser response, one that betrays these protesters as another disenfranchised group looking for acknowledgement or appeasement.

Claiming dissatisfaction with not just banks or corporations but Capitalism itself is (to corporate media) like saying you want to slay a god, and so they invariably search for petty grievances that can be met by the present system. Student loans, unemployment, disparity between the wealthy and the poor, falling standards of living…

Capitalism can cure all these problems, they say, but only if protestors enter the public debate, become part of the system and accept answers generated by its logic. So as long as they remain self-interested individuals in the marketplace, competing against similar groups, the danger of contagion can be addressed.

The OWS problem, from the view of the media and (increasingly) the general public, is ambiguity. As long as occupiers refuse to speak in one voice, addressing one issue, they remain dangerous, because they cannot be dismissed or placated in the old ways. This is what happens when people reject anything less than a new system and it’s what makes them different than other recent protests groups.

This is the primary advantage about the present ambiguity. It rejects the idea that old ways of thinking and protesting are applicable. In dismissing the idea that the system can meet their needs, can produce an outcome not infected by the system itself, the OWS crowd represents true revolutionary potential outside of Capitalism.  

This isn’t a labor strike for better working conditions or a women’s movement fighting for equal political rights within a Capitalist backdrop. This is not a group that is happy to play within a system that can be tweaked to accommodate demands. This is an attack on the system itself.

There was an element to the New Left in the 1960s that shared these sorts of goals, which wanted not just the level of participation the system provided (or would provide), but absolute engagement. But most of what we have seen in the past 40 years has been driven by what could be dismissed as special interest protests that did nothing to change the shape of Capitalism itself.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when young punks and other disaffected youths sneered at the culture and said it was rotten, society could occupy itself with all the new commodities made possible by cheap credit. Today it’s impossible to cover your eyes to the economic realities around us because the crisis of Capitalism has become too obvious to ignore.

So while Vietnam put mass civil unrest to bed because what joined disparate groups (the Psychedelic revolution, the New Left, the Civil Rights movement, the budding women’s rights and gay rights movements, etc..) together was the war, what ties these groups together is an economic situation which is unlikely to change for years.


Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

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