Occupy Theory: Chapter Four

The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore. 


Chapter 4: 
Modes of Analysis

“A multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”
– William Wordsworth

A theory highlights various areas of concern, making predictions, and guiding choices. Books 2 and 3 of Fanfare will assess if our theory helps inform vision and strategy. But how do we actually use a theory – in this case the one we have begun developing – for understanding existing relations. And how do we keep developing it? 

An Analysis Agenda

“The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis.” 
– Stephen Jay Gould


For any issue, event, or project, and for that matter for vision and strategy, too, to understand it in its societal and historical implications and prospects, we examine it in the following way. 

We discern how it is a manifestation of, or might affect, the four spheres of social life, ecology, and international relations – meaning we discern how it relates to the institutions and the consciousnesses associated with each, either manifesting and reproducing their logic or, alternatively, upsetting or even overthrowing their logic. 

Does what we are considering – whether it's an issue, event, or project – exist due to being imposed by the fields of force of one or more of the four spheres of social life? Does it impart to one or more of those spheres an impact that will have lasting consequential effects on the sphere's defining institutional relations? As activists concerned to understand the world to choose actions to make the world a better place, we ask what the relation of what we are examining is to the hierarchies of social groups in the four spheres of social life. Does it, or could it, benefit some groups as against others? By an institutional or a consciousness effect? Does it exist for that reason? 

Suppose, to start, we have an economic phenomenon – call it X. With our particular conceptual toolbox, we might ask about X, what roles in the economy are responsible for X existing and how do those roles enforce, compel, or just make X highly likely? What is X’s impact on class relations and consciousness and the interests of different classes, and on whoever is directly involved in X? Is X inevitable, or is X something we could reduce or eliminate by way of changes to the economy? And then, of course, we would also assess the relation of X to the other three spheres of social life, other constituencies, etc. Is there an element of co-reproduction, etc.?

Now if we suppose we have a largely cultural, or kinship, or political phenomenon. The logic is the same. We might ask about it, what roles in the cultural, kinship, or political sphere are responsible for the phenomenon existing and how do those roles enforce, compel, or just make it highly likely? What is the phenomenon's impact on community, gender, or political relations and constituencies and on whoever is directly involved in the phenomenon? Is the phenomenon inevitable, or is it something we could reduce or eliminate by way of changes to the sphere of origination? And then, of course, we would also assess the relation of the phenomenon to the other three spheres of social life, to other constituencies, etc. 

Example 1: Advertising/Consumerism

“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.” 
– Dorothy L. Sayers

By advertising people typically refer to the trumpeting of information with the purpose of inducing people to purchase things. By consumerism people typically have in mind a drive inside our personalities and preferences to consume things even beyond meeting real needs accurately based on the actual attributes of the items purchased and our situations, and typically at a level far exceeding what we might anticipate in a more sane world. Consumerism in this sense is often seen to rest on manipulative advertising.

Talking about advertising and consumerism is most often undertaken when considering the ecological implications of economics, as in urging that excess production to meet consumerist desires is damaging human prospects for survival. Or when considering the psychological and material pressures of modern life, as in consumerism diminishes our lives by making us never satisfied and always “hungry.” The most suggested antidote to all this is that people should get a grip and consume less. 

Of course the volume of consumption and associated advertising stem from their abetting profit making, dictated by capitalist structure, and their entwining the public in pursuits other than confronting and altering those structures. Likewise, the same holds for its relation to other hierarchies – to a degree it diverts attention, and to a degree it abets reproduction of each. That is, we might say, level one of insight.

Beyond that, however, many analysts additionally argue that a whole lot of what people consume is needless and irrational. It is induced by ads, it doesn't meet needs, and it does damage, instead, all for the benefit of producers pocketing profits. 

Folks with this analysis often think that those who appear to them to consume excessively and irrationally (which tends to be pretty much everyone other than themselves) are manipulated and tricked by ads into doing so. The broad public is, at bottom, dumb, or at any rate manipulated, and suffers for it. Ads get us to buy because we are sucked in by tricky, endlessly repeated claims.

Is there some truth to this? Sure there is. But let’s look a little closer to see if there might not be a bit more to consumerism. Suppose we ask, what institutional relations and role structures affect how much and what we consume, as opposed to what ads help induce us to consume? Rarely do people seek causes of consumption beyond advertising. Rarely do people ask how our class and other allegiances influence our desires for commodities.

Just asking these questions opens a different way of seeing the situation. When a person wants a brand of toothpaste, a shirt, or a car – were they tricked into it by an ad that deceptively led them to believe buying the item was a direct route to sex, friendship, or status? Did they, as a result, become irrationally driven to spend excessively and needlessly to obtain the item? That’s broad possibility 1. Here is broad possibility 2. Society’s roles in its four spheres place us in situations that make consumption the major route to various sorts of benefits – such as improved status, emotional ties, family relations, friendships, sex life, love, and status, not to mention plain old entertainment. We must consume if we are to benefit – because most other routes to benefits are inaccessible or literally absent. In this view, ads mostly just differentiate among available consumption choices. 

In other words, what we consume does dramatically influence our prospects for meeting people, having sex, finding and keeping friends, having status, and gaining plain old pleasure. And, thus, we do it.

Could society be organized in a manner that did not reduce life's options so drastically that buying commodities becomes a main or even the sole route to pleasure and fulfillment? Of course. Kinship could generate non commodity mediated paths to family, sex, love. Politics could generate non commodity mediated routes to participation and efficacy. Culture could generate non commodity mediated routes to community and friendship. Economy could generate non commodity mediated routes to all kinds of entertainment and play, not to mention generating goods that were durable and sensibly priced, as well as generating collective solutions to material issues of need, rather than only private ones. 

And so, in our societies, are people tricked by ads? When an ad says that a drug will do X, and it is a lie, and we believe the ad, then yes, we were tricked. And yes, that does happen in various ways, about drugs, and other commodities too, though much less often than typically assumed. But if an ad implies that some product will make us happier, or more popular, or at least not less happy and less popular as we would be made by exclusion if we did not have the product, because of the absence of other routes to related benefits – then, no, in those instances, most often, we are not tricked. The sad and much more damning truth is that having or not having the commodity probably will impact our spirits. People want the commodity because it is an available – however unlikely – route to the meager levels of life enrichment that may be plausibly attained given the hours people must work, the conditions of peoples' lives, the available energies people have, and especially the constrained opportunities people confront due to the social roles they occupy. There is much more to say, but in this short volume we must leave that for readers using the intellectual framework to explore – though we can here at least briefly consider the effects of membership in certain constituencies on our actual consumption preferences.

Example 2: Sports Fandom

“Sports is the toy department of human life.”
– Howard Cosell 

Being a man or woman, as an example, dramatically alters our consumption tastes – ruling out many items, making others essential – because social norms deriving from social rules and customs impose the needs. That much is obvious. But to see that this can significantly affect matters of great social concern, consider a classic image of the beer drinking working class guy on a couch watching football for hours on end. Many leftists look at this fellow, in their mind’s eye, with disdain. Just ask yourself if you have ever had a dismissive view of sports fans. The sad, manipulated, passive dolt, many critics think. But let’s look more closely.

First off, for one thing, nowadays there is nearly the same likelihood the person is a woman as a man. Second, there is a very good likelihood the person isn’t lying their alone. Rather, it may be a family viewing the event and it may involve friends, as well. Third, the person is highly unlikely to be passive. Rather, many viewers of football and other sports are very knowledgeable about what they are watching – and they think along, evaluate choices, get engaged, and so on. They do this, probably more so, in fact, than the typical leftist watching a news show. 

When we want to know why a person does something – in this case why a person consumes a ball game from the couch – we could ask the person, or simply consult why we might do it, or more insightfully, we could ask what would be the result of the person not doing it, and doing something else, instead. 

So the leftist critic may think, why can’t Joe or Jill – on the couch for four hours riveted to the game (in fact, Joe and/or Jill are probably interacting with each other, with others who are together viewing in a social way, etc., but, let’s say the image is correct: just the one person, just lying there watching) – instead do something more useful? 

If you ask friends on the left what this more useful pursuit might be, their most frequent reply will be, well, why not play? You might discuss how over the past few decades most possibilities of assembling enough people, having a field, and having equipment, have been obliterated – the reason being, to reduce social ties which, especially among working people, are very dangerous for the status quo. So as with advertising we have an instance of the elimination of alternatives leaving sports fandom as a remaining available route to engagement of diverse types. 

But then the person you are querying will nonetheless typically say, okay, if options to play are slim for those who can't afford private access, the sports fan could at least read a book. There is nothing structural preventing that. What book? The reply from an American leftist might be: How about Chomsky? Why not read Chomsky instead of watching football, basketball, American Idol, says the critic of the couch fan.

The next step, rather than stopping at that point, comfortable with disdainfully saying the sports fan has opted out of reading due to being stupid, lazy, or sucked in by ads, might be to explore the results one could expect from his or her reading Chomsky instead of rooting for the home team. Having nothing to talk about with others at work the next day is a most obvious outcome, an extreme version of which would be to appear anti social and aloof, with devastating consequences. 

One is, however, also likely to be made angry, to be highly sensitized to injustice, to lose the rationale for suffering that comes with believing at least the country is great, and so on, due to reading Chomsky. In short, if you think it through, the option to read Chomsky instead of watching the ballgame – at least in non tumultuous times – turns out to be an option to reduce friendships and even risk losing them – and similarly for family ties – and so on. Plus going to work may now be even harder than usual, risking income, at least. You read. You learn. You get aroused. But there is no social route to manifest the insights, angers, and desires the reading intensifies. The reading becomes a bit masochistic, if you think about it. (This also explains oppressed constituencies reticence about accepting leaflets and attending political events.) The reading is arguably a slippery slope to loneliness, anger, and views and desires contrary to fulfilling one's allotted roles at work and in society – and thus we see how the impetus to watch sports as compared to doing something else is largely imposed by societal pressures and constraints that reward and make accessible activities like watching sports that are consistent with reproducing society's defining relations and that make hard and punish other activities that may lead toward inclinations to alter society. 

Does society apply tremendous resources to making sports highly visible, accessible, respected, because doing so is a useful mechanism to distract folks from social problems? Sure. Of course. But does that mean that watching, given the limited alternatives for spending the time other ways, is dumb? Not at all. The context makes the behavior sensible – and so the context, including the absence of huge, effective social movements, is the problem, not the couch fan's genetic dispositions or personality. It is easy to see gender, race, and power relations at work, but before leaving this issue, albeit barely having begun to explore it and just trying to show how looking at roles and their implications can clarify matters, what about the explicit impact of class on issues like this? 

The main thing to consider is how class allegiances affect the actual final choices that the viewer – or consumer of goods – makes. To make the point in a domain of great personal importance to readers, this time consider the average leftist student's disdain for McDonalds, country music, and tabloid newspapers, as well as for car racing, bowling, roller derby, boxing, and football – one could go on – versus the same person's likely appreciation of fine restaurants, rap or rock music, the New York Times, and tennis or figure skating. Is this set of tastes just due to preferring objectively better to objectively worse offerings in the horribly constrained setting that imposes opting for commodity fulfillment? Or is there a very clear class dimension to these particular final commodity choices?