Res Populis

Economic Responsibility

In Articles, On a serious note... on November 13, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Apparently people are finally catching up. From the start I had been highly suspect of bailing out failures. Why on earth should a worker already working hard be asked to work even harder so as to make good for the failure of the rich? Why shouldn’t the rich themselves, having amassed great fortunes over the years, shoulder the responsibility?

Reading Italian newspapers this week, it seems that this line of thought has suddenly been revealed to people. The Occupy movement has brought protesters to town in order to combat what they perceive as social and economical inequality, corporate greed and corruption. I say “what they perceive” not to cast any doubt about such a trivially obvious fact of life but to remind ourselves that it is hard to perceive social and economic injustice from within the walls of Versailles.

The lavish lifestyle of the few is comparable, and actually tastelessly outdoes the lifestyle extravagancies of the French aristocracy before the infamous revolution that brought about cuts having nothing to do with taxes. And the analogy is only now coming to completion, with the Occupy movement being the revolutionaries – some Oakland protestors have gone so far as declaring a Commune, an intentional, highly significant and, I posit, not merely symbolical reference to the Paris Commune.

This whole mess has been brewing far before people think. In The Great Gatsby the nouveau rich of West Egg re-enact and imitate the French by building a “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy”. The aristocratic inhumane greed found in Hugo’s Les Miserables has become domesticated: through the passing of time has been made less ugly and transformed into something benignly, albeit extravagantly, innocent, and only the lavish desirability of it all survived: the Marie-Antoinette rooms, the Louis XIV furniture.

The wealthy and the affluent have once again forgotten the poor and their sufferings and have once again barricaded themselves inside their own beautiful world.

 The best way to hide the obvious, is by keeping it obvious.

They’ve done things differently this time though, this much we have to admit.

Firstly they tried to bluff their way, alienating the people. The French working class was totally unaware of the lavish lifestyle of their King and his royal entourage, and once they found out they were possessed and overcome with rage.

So this time the rich tried to make its excesses public. By showing its excess it could alienate the people: certainly there is nothing wrong being done since it’s “out in the open”. And so through various MTV shows their ridiculous spending sprees were publicized and glorified. People were invited to be part of the rich life, albeit as passive observers. They were guests in their houses, in their “cribs”, if only for a short and limited time, until the host politely escorted the cameras outside and closed the doors.

Like Nick in that greatest of American novels, the people were invited to the party and became so fascinated by their hosts that they overlooked the injustice and the ludicrousness of it all.

For a time it had all become quite surreal. The reality of their poverty met and meshed in with the unreality of being invited (they were never really invited; much like the “guests” at Gatsby’s parties); blending perfectly well together to create a sort of happy poverty, much like a mother happily foregoes riches in order to provide for her offspring.

But even the Great Gatsby eventually put an end to his parties. And once the charades became routine, and the capitalist monarchs had no other way of prolonging the inevitable, the people finally awoke from their slumber.

They finally understood that being angry that their “neighbour’s” daughter’s sweet sixteen party is an extravagant out of this world splurge displaying excesses few people can even dream of while theirs is a trip to McDonald’s is not a sign of envy, but the bequest of common sense, the manifestation of the Human Will towards Justice.

Asked why it took so long for the protests to happen, Kalle Lasn replied by citing the initial hope in the new U.S. president, but somehow this is not entirely convincing. Surely, it played its part, but the real reason is that the public finally caught up. It is quite normal for people to ignore what is routine and usual. The best way to hide the obvious, is by keeping it obvious. In fact some people still haven’t caught up.

Not even technology, the most alienating of public distractions, could protect the rich – indeed the promotion of technological gadgets backfired in many ways. Firstly, their desirability only accentuated the dire financial states. Slaves to devices, the people found they could not live without the latest gadget. This discovery was soon followed by another: that these gadgets cost a pretty penny, and their measly salaries could in no way keep up with the fast-paced flow of new products and their own increasing and increasingly uncontrollable demand. Secondly, the gadgets and applications and social networking services became the weapons of the “revolution”.

Secondly, they hid. They dealt in invisible transactions and offered the public no real enemy. Paradoxically the tactics of the rich involved both getting into the limelight and retreating into the darkness. Just like vulgar thieves they carried out their business in the cover of darkness afforded by the back alleys of cyberspace. Even now, they afford no spotlight to protesters, making every effort to blanket any form of resistance: there’s been almost no mention of the Occupy movement on the BBC, CNN and other affluent media.

As the sociologist philosopher Zygmunt Baumann wrote, everything is liquidized, and the Occupy movement tries to occupy Wall Street, though only because it doesn’t know what it really needs to occupy. And the name for the international movement, Occupy Everything is very apt. Once you don’t know where the enemy is, you need to hit everywhere.

This echoes Slavoj Žižek’s concerns,[i]which are entirely missed by the professor criticizing him on Al Jazeera’s website.[ii] Žižek is rightly worried that the Arab Spring (and any other protest movement born in this liquid modernity) is devoid of Meaning, and being aimless it therefore risks of becoming meaningless.

The Occupy movement actually boasts of being leaderless (“strong people don’t need strong leaders”, the Occupy Everything platform writes on its website, quoting Ella Baker). Strong people might not need strong leaders, but they do need leaders nonetheless.

The lack of leadership is precisely what never led workers to unite on a big scale following 1917. The bigger the group, the harder it is to control and organize it. That is why most protests held by the working class were limited to relatively small sized groups made a coherent whole by and under the leadership of a labour union. The logistical problems and obstacles might have been overcome by technology, as the Arab Spring has shown. In this respect, the Arab Spring marks not the end of revolution, but rather the end of revolution as we know it, and the beginning of a new form of “rapid deployment revolutions”, with all the positive and negative consequences that this entails. Thankfully for the protestors, the internet has proved to be an invisible, liquid aid.

A collective need not be leaderless, and leadership can take many forms. Leadership can give direction. We might all want to go to point B, perhaps to some restaurant we all heard great things about, but we choose the person who knows how to get there best as the leader. That doesn’t mean that he will get to eat more than us though, or not pay for his share.

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