We are the products of the long, drawn-out process known as evolution by means of natural selection. Regardless of whether or not you buy into the memes and methods of evolutionary psychology, there is no point in denying that we stand forever on the cusp of the future, shaped by the depths of the past. One troublesome product of our evolutionary history is the desire to see the world as a binary opposition between the goodies and the baddies. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of reductionism makes perfect sense as our lives once depended upon the capacity to instantly distinguish between friend and foe.
As educated adults, we know that such reductions are simplistic fantasies. We know that the real colour of the world is not black or white but an ugly beige, a vast moral greyness tainted by the blood red of guilt and atrocity. We know these things and yet we still hanker after certainty and when our mind cannot find certainty in the world, it cuts corners by blinding us to the moral shortcomings of our allies and the unexpected nobility of our opponents. The world is a complex place and we can only make sense of it by choosing a line of best fit and sticking to it come what may.
The Occupy movement is fascinating to me as it is a political entity that seems to thrive on our need for moral certainty. My case study for this assertion is Naomi Wolf’s column in The Guardian on the 25th of November. The column itself is essentially a conspiracy theory that suggests that the reason for the recent spate of American crackdowns on the Occupy movement is that America’s political elites are realising the threat the movement poses and acting together in order to suppress it. I have no particular views on the Occupy movement’s capacity to produce change and so I am largely agnostic about whether or not the members of the movement are wasting their time. However, while I may not believe that the Occupy movement has the capacity to change political reality, I think that the movement has now acquired enough symbolic power that it will re-shape the nature of political rhetoric. Consider the following from Wolf’s column:
The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.
Much has been made of the mainstream media’s repeated assertions that the Occupy movement does not stand for anything. By and large, those who are against the movement point out its lack of apparent political coherence and conclude that it is nothing more than camping while those who support the movement are quick to point out the movement’s real agenda. Wolf singles out three different ‘agenda items’ and concludes that these are the ideas that pose a threat to the current status quo. But what of the other 97 answers Wolf received?
The truth is that the Occupy movement stands for all 100 of these answers and none of them. The movement’s political power flows from its capacity to serve as a semantic sponge for the inarticulate rage that most people feel about the current economic and political climate. By refusing to elect leaders and put forward a binding manifesto, the Occupy movement appears incoherent but this incoherent simply strengthens its moral authority. No matter how informed you are and no matter what your precise economic and political views might be, you can look at the Occupy movement and see something for you. They are a raised fist and a raised fist has all the meaning in the world.
One of the reasons why many members of the political elite (particularly journalists) pour scorn on the Occupy movement is because their refusal to elect leaders and decide upon a manifesto deprives journalists and politicians of their usual means of attack. Indeed, when confronted by a political opponent, most political discourse will either ‘play the man’ by attempting to portray them as a hypocrite or ‘play the ball’ by arguing that their policies are either incoherent or misguided or both. Because the Occupy movement lacks both leadership and coherent argument, they cannot be played using traditional tools. This is where the true political power of the movement resides.
When people occupied the square outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, politicians and church officials were swift to demand their immediate expulsion. The Church began by citing health and safety reasons but rapidly moved on to talking about being deprived of revenue while British politicians declared the camp to be an ugly shanty town. Struggling to gain an intellectual purchase on the situation, the British media shifted uneasily between taking pot-shots at the protesters (attempts to ‘play the man’ include saying that they are dirty and hypocritical because they oppose capitalism and yet still buy food) and reporting the establishment’s reaction to the protests.
The Occupy movement’s power lies in the fact that its unusual nature forces reporters to focus upon official responses to the movement and because official responses to the movement tend to be brutal and repressive, the Occupy movement shows the establishment for what it really is: a morally bankrupt oligarchy that will tolerate no real opposition regardless of how ineffectual and incoherent that opposition might prove to be.
- When the Metropolitan Police kettle peaceful protesters, the Metropolitan Police are shown to be brutal imbeciles.
- When the campus police at UC Davis pepper spray peaceful protesters, the campus police at UC Davis are shown to be sadistic thugs.
- When the Church of England talks about taking protesters to court in order to protect their revenue stream, the Church of England are shown to care far more about money than about social and economic justice.
- When corporations offer an $850,000 contract to anyone who successfully smears the Occupy movement, the corporations are shown to be manipulative and the media are shown to be their instruments.
- When the Department of Homeland Security work with city mayors to coordinate crackdown on peaceful protest, the government bodies and offices created to protect the American people are shown to be their brutal oppressors.
Our tiny primate brains cannot tolerate too much complexity. When faced with a confrontation between two groups, we like to pick a side and root for it. The power of the Occupy movement lies in its capacity to tickle the switches in our brains that cause us to deem one group ‘good’ and another ‘bad’. Even if you do not agree with everything the movement stands for (and who could with 100 different not-necessarily-compatible mission statements), chances are that you are likely to find something that they are doing right. However, while this sort of broad-based non-specific activism may explain the movement’s appeal to leftists all across the world, the movement’s true power lies in its capacity to serve as a lightening rod for the uglier elements in the political elite. By coaxing more and more oppressive behaviour from the establishment, the Occupy movement is making that establishment look more and more corrupt and the more obviously corrupt the establishment seems, the easier it is for our brains to take a simple line of fit that casts the entire Western political elite as bad guys.
The truth of the matter is that the Occupy movement is constitutionally incapable of causing political change. No governments will fall because a bunch of people decided to camp in a park. However, what the Occupy movement is capable of doing is providing the political establishment with enough rope to hand themselves. Every pepper-spraying, baton-charge and forced eviction adds to the conviction that our elected officials are clueless and morally bankrupt. In order to hurt the current regime, all the Occupy movement needs to do is sit there and make vaguely anti-establishment noises while government shows its true face to the world. Far from being a weakness, the Occupy movement’s incoherence lies at the root of its power to flip the switch from good to bad and radically realign how we think of ourselves as a society.