[This is an expanded version of remarks at an Occupy Austin teach-in, October 30, 2011.]
There’s one question that pundits and politicians keep posing to the Occupy gatherings around the country: What are your demands?
I have a suggestion for a response: We demand that you stop demanding a list of demands.
The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or — if those tactics fail — squash any challenge to business as usual.
Rather than listing demands, we critics of concentrated wealth and power in the United States can dig in and deepen our analysis of the systems that produce that unjust distribution of wealth and power. This is a time for action, but there also is a need for analysis. Rallying around a common concern about economic injustice is a beginning; understanding the structures and institutions of illegitimate authority is the next step. We need to recognize that the crises we face are not the result simply of greedy corporate executives or corrupt politicians, but rather of failed systems. The problem is not the specific people who control most of the wealth of the country, or those in government who serve them, but the systems that create those roles. If we could get rid of the current gang of thieves and thugs but left the systems in place, we will find that the new boss is going to be the same as the old boss.
My contribution to this process of sharpening analysis comes in lists of three, with lots of alliteration. Whether you find my analysis of the key questions compelling, at least it will be easy to remember: empire, economics, ecology.
Empire: Immoral, Illegal, Ineffective
The United States is the current (though fading) imperial power in the world, and empires are bad things. We have to let go of self-indulgent notions of American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is a unique engine of freedom and democracy in the world and therefore a responsible and benevolent empire. Empires throughout history have used coercion and violence to acquire a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and the U.S. empire is no different.
Although the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are particularly grotesque examples of U.S. imperial destruction, none of this is new; the United States was founded by men with imperial visions who conquered the continent and then turned to the world. Most chart the beginning of the external U.S. empire-building phase with the 1898 Spanish-American War and the conquest of the Philippines that continued for some years after. That project went forward in the early 20th century, most notably in Central America, where regular U.S. military incursions made countries safe for investment.
The empire emerged in full force after World War II, as the United States assumed the role of the dominant power in the world and intensified the project of subordinating the developing world to the U.S. system. Those efforts went forward under the banner of “anti-communism” until the early 1990s, but continued after the demise of the Soviet Union under various other guises, most notably the so-called “war on terrorism.” Whether it was Latin America, southern Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, the central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been consistent: to make sure that an independent course of development did not succeed anywhere. The “virus” of independent development could not be allowed to take root in any country out of a fear that it might infect the rest of the developing world.
The victims of this policy — the vast majority of them non-white — can be counted in the millions. In the Western Hemisphere, U.S. policy was carried out mostly through proxy armies, such as the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or support for dictatorships and military regimes that brutally repressed their own people, such as El Salvador. The result throughout the region was hundreds of thousands of dead — millions across Latin America over the course of the 20th century — and whole countries ruined.
Direct U.S. military intervention was another tool of U.S. policymakers, with the most grotesque example being the attack on Southeast Asia. After supporting the failed French effort to recolonize Vietnam after World War II, the United States invaded South Vietnam and also intervened in Laos and Cambodia, at a cost of 3-4 million Southeast Asians dead and a region destabilized. To prevent the spread of the “virus” there, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine killings of civilians, and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover — all were part of the U.S. terror war.
On 9/11, the vague terrorism justification became tangible for everyone. With the U.S. economy no longer the source of dominance, policymakers used the terrorist attacks to justify an expansion of military operations in Central Asia and the Middle East. Though non-military approaches to terrorism were more viable, the rationale for ever-larger defense spending was set.
A decade later, the failures of this imperial policy are clearer than ever. U.S. foreign and military policy has always been immoral, based not on principle but on power. That policy routinely has been illegal, violating the basic tenets of international law and the constitutional system. Now, more than ever, we can see that this approach to world affairs is ineffective, no matter what criteria for effectiveness we use. An immoral and criminal policy has lost even its craven justification: It will not guarantee American dominance.
That failure is the light at the end of the tunnel. As the elite bipartisan commitment to U.S. dominance fails, we the people have a chance to demand that the United States shift to policies designed not to allow us to run the world but to help us become part of the world.
Economics: Inhuman, Anti-Democratic, Unsustainable
The economic system underlying empire-building today has a name: capitalism. Or, more precisely, a predatory corporate capitalism that is inconsistent with basic human values. This description sounds odd in the United States, where so many assume that capitalism is not simply the best among competing economic systems but the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world. Although the financial crisis that began in 2008 has scared many people, it has not always led to questioning the nature of the system.
That means the first task is to define capitalism: that economic system in which (1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; (2) most people must rent their labor power for money wages to survive, and (3) the prices of most goods and services are allocated by markets. “Industrial capitalism,” made possible by sweeping technological changes and imperial concentrations of capital, was marked by the development of the factory system and greater labor specialization. The term “finance capitalism” is often used to mark a shift to a system in which the accumulation of profits in a financial system becomes dominant over the production processes. Today in the United States, most people understand capitalism in the context of mass consumption — access to unprecedented levels of goods and services. In such a world, everything and everyone is a commodity in the market.
In the dominant ideology of market fundamentalism, it’s assumed that the most extensive use of markets possible, along with privatization of many publicly owned assets and the shrinking of public services, will unleash maximal competition and result in the greatest good — and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. If such a system creates a world in which most people live in poverty, that is taken not as evidence of a problem with market fundamentalism but evidence that fundamentalist principles have not been imposed with sufficient vigor; it is an article of faith that the “invisible hand” of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.
How to critique capitalism in such a society? We can start by pointing out that capitalism is fundamentally inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable.
Inhuman: The theory behind contemporary capitalism explains that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, a viable economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior. That’s certainly part of human nature, but we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity to act out of solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.
Why is it that we must accept an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the cruelest? Because, we’re told, that’s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we’re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit circular? A bit perverse?
Anti-democratic: In the real world — not in the textbooks or fantasies of economics professors — capitalism has always been, and will always be, a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. I know of no historical example to the contrary.
For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that for the most part, the wealthy dictate the basic outlines of the public policies that are put into practice by elected o fficials. This is cogently explained by political scientist Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of political parties,” which identifies powerful investors rather than unorganized voters as the dominant force in campaigns and elections. Ferguson describes political parties in the United States as “blocs of major investors who coalesce to advance candidates representing their interests” and that “political parties dominated by large investors try to assemble the votes they need by making very limited appeals to particular segments of the potential electorate.” There can be competition between these blocs, but “on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition will take place.” Whatever we might call such a system, it’s not democracy in any meaningful sense of the term.
People can and do resist the system’s attempt to sideline them, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist sometimes win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. If we define democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.
Unsustainable: Capitalism is a system based on an assumption of continuing, unlimited growth — on a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this problem. We can hold out hope that we might hop to a new planet soon, or we can embrace technological fundamentalism and believe that evermore complex technologies will allow us to transcend those physical limits here. Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems; in fact, they tend to cause more problems, and in this world those problems keep piling up.
Critics now compare capitalism to cancer. The inhuman and antidemocratic features of capitalism mean that, like a cancer, the death system will eventually destroy the living host. Both the human communities and non-human living world that play host to capitalism eventually will be destroyed by capitalism. Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air we breathe. But the air that we are breathing is choking the most vulnerable in the world, choking us, choking the planet.
Ecology: Out of Gas, Derailed, Over the Waterfall
In addition to inequality within the human family, we face even greater threats in the human assault on the living world that come with industrial society. High-energy/high-technology societies pose a serious threat to the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. Grasping that reality is a challenge, and coping with the implications is an even greater challenge. We likely have a chance to stave off the most catastrophic consequences if we act dramatically and quickly. If we continue to drag our feet, it’s “game over.”
While public awareness of the depth of the ecological crisis is growing, our knowledge of the basics of the problem is hardly new. Here is a “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” issued by 1,700 of the planet’s leading scientists:
“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”
That statement was issued in 1992, and since then we have fallen further behind in the struggle for sustainability. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity — and the news is bad. Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. And, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory of climate disruption.
Add all that up, and ask a simple question: Where we are heading? Pick a metaphor. Are we a car running out of gas? A train about to derail? A raft going over the waterfall? Whatever the choice, it’s not a pretty picture. It’s crucial we realize that there are no technological fixes that will rescue us. We have to acknowledge that human attempts to dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves.
Facing a Harsh Future with a Stubborn Hope
The people who run this world are eager to contain the Occupy energy not because they believe the critics of concentrated wealth and power are wrong, but because somewhere deep down in their souls (or what is left of a soul), the powerful know we are right. People in power are insulated by wealth and privilege, but they can see the systems falling apart. The United States’ military power can no longer guarantee world domination. The financial corporations can no longer pretend to provide order in the economy. The industrial system is incompatible with life.
We face new threats today, but we are not the first humans to live in dangerous times. In 1957 the Nobel writer Albert Camus described the world in ways that resonate:
“Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.”
A stubborn hope is more necessary than ever. As political, economic, and ecological systems spiral down, it’s likely we will see levels of human suffering that dwarf even the horrors of the 20th century. Even more challenging is the harsh realization that we don’t have at hand simple solutions — and maybe no solutions at all — to some of the most vexing problems. We may be past the point of no return in ecological damage, and the question is not how to prevent crises but how to mitigate the worst effects. No one can predict the rate of collapse if we stay on this trajectory, and we don’t know if we can change the trajectory in time.
There is much we don’t know, but everything I see suggests that the world in which we will pursue political goals will change dramatically in the next decade or two, almost certainly for the worse. Organizing has to adapt not only to changes in societies but to these fundamental changes in the ecosphere. In short: We are organizing in a period of contraction, not expansion. We have to acknowledge that human attempts to dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves. Here, just as in human relationships, we either abandon the dominance/subordination dynamic or we don’t survive.
In 1948, Camus urged people to “give up empty quarrels” and “pay attention to what unites rather that to what separates us” in the struggle to recover from the horrors of Europe’s barbarism. I take from Camus a sense of how to live the tension between facing honestly the horror and yet remaining engaged. In that same talk, he spoke of “the forces of terror” (forces which exist on “our” side as much as on “theirs”) and the “forces of dialogue” (which also exist everywhere in the world). Where do we place our hopes?
“Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun,” he wrote. “I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought.”
The Occupy gatherings do not yet constitute a coherent movement with demands, but they are wellsprings of reasonable illusions. Rejecting the political babble around us in election campaigns and on mass media, these gatherings are an experiment in a different kind of public dialogue about our common life, one that can reject the forces of terror deployed by concentrated wealth and power.
With that understanding, the central task is to keep the experiment going, to remember the latent power in people who do not accept the legitimacy of a system. Singer/songwriter John Gorka, writing about what appears to be impossible, offers the perfect reminder:
“They think they can tame you, name you and frame you,
aim you where you don’t belong.
They know where you’ve been but not where you’re going,
that is the source of the songs.”
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, one of the partners in the community center “5604 Manor,” http://5604manor.org/.
He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity(South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002).
Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Information about the film, distributed by the Media Education Foundation, and an extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff are online at http://thirdcoastactivist.org/osheroff.html.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected] and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html.