'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 28 November 2011

Occupy This [ ]

The world is rich and the world is poor. Over 5 billion people live on an average annual income of US$3,500 per person. In one of the many 1905 petitions of the peasants to the ruling elite in Russia, it was noted tellingly that the era was at hand when death was preferable to the present endless suffering. The moment when revolution is preferred to endless suffering is reached more quickly when there is a self-aggrandizing elite in plain view. Such bipolarity exacerbates social tension.

The situation in 1905 is an extreme example.


The tide has turned against Occupy in that many fixed sites are facing or have been evicted. Occupy LA for instance, faces eviction at the end of of this month. Occupy may be seen by history to be a vanguard for a more consolidated and coherent demand for social change. As such, in the future, it is a fundamental that the message of Occupy be constrained to one theatre of discontent.

Competing narratives dilute and cause friction within the protest group. Moroever, Occupy should not believe that it is capable of doing things or achieving ends which are so clearly incommensurate with their methods.

Occupy is thus a statement, nothing more. In protesting and utilising networked media it is able to author a global, distinct message. Firstly this was as the 99 percent but now, as is inevitable, other messages, many solely political and some highly local (for instance Free Abdullah Ocalan tent in Occupy LSX which became sadly synonymous not with the LSX but with St Pauls) have been tacked onto the original authoring resulting in a failed, confused, self-defeating protest grouping.

Occupy is a necessary statement. In and of itself it is simply a protest but it does augur problems which have proved catastrophic in myriad previous societies. Even if occupy is simply a socially-networked anti-elite elite at work, the protest is indicative of the genuine frustrations at a widening gap in Western societies, coupled to rising basic living costs well above that of general wage increases. Real income is declining.  

Plato and the social rift

Consider Plato’s ‘Republic’ in which he critiques four forms of state – timarchy, tyranny, oligarchy an democracy. It is the third and fourth systems that are relevant here. Of an oligarchy, Desmond Lee characterises Plato’s lament:

“a society in which power and prestige went with wealth; and since the wealthy are normally few, where power goes with wealth political control is in the hands of a minority. The days of hereditary aristocracy were long over, and though there were of course old families in most states, birth had had to come to terms with wealth and, by itself, was, at the most, of limited political influence…it was the controlling influence given to wealth that Plato particularly disliked. He had the deepest mistrust of what would today be called the profit-motive and of the political influence of private wealth of private wealth; and he thought that in an oligarchy (an ‘acquisitive society’) you were bound to get increasing exploitation of poor by rich, and an increasing degree of social maladjustment and disunity in consequence. He draws a picture of growing oppression met by growing bitterness and ending in revolution” [Lee, Plato, Republic, 2nd ed, introduction, xxv]

And of democracy, the disintegration of authority as freedom becomes a social watchword:

“there is so little social cohesion dissension inevitably grows. Politically, it takes the form of a struggle between rich and poor” [ibid., xxviii]

What we have is an increasingly self-aggrandising elite – Tony Blair, (a British Prime Minister who said in 1983, ‘I am a socialist…it stands for equality’) has earned a reported £15 million since leaving office and acquired a multinational property portfolio – and a democratic mass left free of proper government by politicians so desperate to become elected that they sway to the whims of the electorate rather than attempt to achieve any meaningful or necessary measures.

In the UK, New Labour solved unemployment - a public concern - by creating a vast middle management sector within the public sector. This was paid for by increasing national debt and inevitably, by detrimental reform to private sector, but only at the lower end, where a significant mass earn just above the minimum wage and make very little contribution to the capitalist society. They merely exist. In short, democracy is mob rule, pandering only to short term interests which under Labour were job creation without actually creating any job demand. This was good politics, Labour were reelected twice but the long term implications are bleak. What was needed was a coherent long term plan but in this system of government the visionary makes a poor democrat. People want instantaneous results.

All politics are local

If we observe with detached interest the events of the Arab Spring then we are guilty of a perverse sociocentrism, a belief that our own Western societies are somehow, better, more refined – that our blood was spilled many centuries ago to achieve a universal morality which is the goal for all – and in so doing we risk condemning all that our ancestors fought for into an abyss of material self aggrandisement. Society should be the end, not the means. But it represents for many merely a competition in which material acquisition is the goal and society the medium. 

We must learn from the Arab Spring – a revolution based on social and economic disenfranchisement and the self-aggrandisement of the ruling elite. In the West an affluent middle class serves as a buffer to changes in political status quo – since they are comfortable in their means they resist any that would change from above or below the situation to their detriment. But it is an illusion to think that the entire stratum of the middle class is safe from economic turmoil. Less than a generation from now, those offspring of the middle class that will suffer financial catastrophe in this decade will be growing up with limited means and will represent a new, dynamic and highly motivated addition to the grouping of  “have-nots”. 

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