Friday, November 25, 2011

A Couple Notes on OWS

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

For most of human existence, warfare has been a matter of bringing two mobs within hailing distance of each other, engaging in various ritual shows of intimidation, throwing some things at each other, and finally a few bold individuals making dashes at each other and exchanging a few blows with club or spear. This goes on until one side or the other panics and runs away. That's how warfare has usually been practiced, for millennia. Grimly standing in one place and murdering each other for hours at a time was invented within historical times, by those endlessly inventive people, the ancient Greeks. It's not how our species has usually done it.

Perhaps I bear that too much in mind when I watch protests and footage of protests. I don't really get the concept of “peaceful protest.” It looks like warfare, to me. It feels like warfare. I hate it, all of it, all the time, even when in theory I approve of it.

I'm deeply grateful to the Occupy movement for bringing to the fore issues that should have been front and center for a generation. And I was as shocked as anyone by the images coming from UC Davis. And yes, I have had the revenge fantasies too, of forcing open that police lieutenant's mouth and eyes and spraying his face with stuff that burns ten times more than habanero peppers. I have them so insistently that I'm spending a fair amount of my mental energy setting them aside. But I still have a nagging sense that it's a bit disingenuous to pretend that the whole point of these protests has not been to provoke just such an outrage. The point wasn't to have a camp out. The point was to make the violence beneath everyday economic relationships visible.

We tend to think of defaulting on debts as a failure, as a breakdown of the system. In fact, default is an integral part of any financial system. If lenders can't lose their money, they have no reason to evaluate credit. They'll loan money to people who probably can't pay it back, which results either in speculative bubbles – the ruinous housing bubble we've just experienced is only the last in a series that we've seen, and we have not yet put anything in place to prevent more from happening – or in perpetual debt.

If people can't legally default – as is the case with student debt now – they will be reduced to debt peonage. A gentle form of it, sure, but an average graduate, carrying forty thousand dollars of debt, with occasional minimum wage work his only prospect, has no reason to think he will ever be free of debt. He won't be thrown into prison, but he will never own real property. He will never be a stakeholder. If such a person does not become a radical enemy of the existing order of things, it will only be because he's easily hoodwinked or morbidly given to self-blame.

We need to allow these people what we have traditionally allowed to everyone – the opportunity to go bankrupt and start over. The troubles we have seen recently are only the beginning, if we don't give these young people some path to achieving independence. It may be true that they should never have incurred this debt – in fact, it is true – but it's also true that virtually every authority they encountered encouraged them to do it, from their government to their parents to their academic advisers and professors. No one intended to cheat them: but they have been cheated, and they know it.

See John Keegan's History of Warfare for the Greek innovation in warfare. For debt, I'm drawing (as so often these days) on David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years.


Sabine said...

Interesting, thanks. I suppose we are lucky not to be young students at this moment in time - something you mentioned in an earlier port I think.
Mostly, (watching) these protests makes me feel exhausted and small, small because we, I, was once also so active and involved in another version of the same thing, the issues have changed only marginally and it seems that nothing has come of it. And I am soo tired of reinventing the wheel - so to speak - yet again.
But to some extent I feel hopeful, but only that little bit, hopeful that maybe we, all of us, may finally learn that money and its golden myth is really only an illusion which has us trapped and bound so much more than it deserves.

Dale said...

I guess the people I feel most sorry for are the in-betweeners, the people who thought they were getting the same deal my generation was, and then had the rug jerked out from under them. Students now -- the attentive ones, anyway -- realize that the game has changed, that if you're working class in present-day America you stay working class, and that credit is a trap, not an opportunity. They know they're never going to own a house. But the people who finished school five, ten years ago are still painfully finding out what their real financial situation is.

I know, I too feel about the protests that everything hits me on an old wound. It's exquisitely painful.

Dale said...

But yes. The real point is that money story, however sweetened, was always a damned lie. And the most hopeful thing about the OWS movement, to me, is precisely what most people complain about: that it's vague, and that they seem to be revolting against everything. That's the whole point: that the whole damn structure is, and always has been, a pack of lies. And what we want to take apart is not this or that, but the entire illusion, the whole story that leads you to believe that these inequities and imbalances can be right and proper.

Sabine said...

I think that's one of the best features (? aspects?) that the protests are so vague, that there are questions and muddles and all that stuff and how dumbfounded the critics are as in "What, no demands? Aren't you all lefties?"
All of us should really be asking our respective political representatives in our various forms of democratically elected governments a LOT of questions these days instead of yawning or switching channels and electing some figure head - or in your case - yet another millionaire every 4, 5 or whatever years to run the show for the lobbies. Stop! Getting carried away here, oops.