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.


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

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