Saturday, November 05, 2011

Older and younger generations

I do not really enjoy being a wet blanket with respect of Occupy Wall Street. The country is in a very bad way, and the protesters are trying to call attention to very real problems. To the extent that they can prove that a constituency for economic reform exists, they might shift the political process somewhat, although I suspect the White House feels sure it has that constituency in its pocket already and need not worry too much about it. Yet I continue to feel that the rhetoric of many protesters has an all-too familiar ring, and that the state of the nation has led them into the same dead end that too many of my contemporaries encountered more than forty years ago: a belief that nothing less than a complete transformation of a hopelessly evil society will suffice. Since such a transformation is neither possible nor really desirable, I worry that the results of OWS, like those of the "student revolution" of my youth, will be largely negative.

Let my illustrate my point with a couple of texts. I'll begin with excerpts from an interview by Chris Hedges, a popular liberal blogger, with a Millennial protester in Zucotti Park.

Jon Friesen, 27, tall and lanky with a long, dirty-blond ponytail, a purple scarf and an old green fleece, is sitting on concrete at the edge of Zuccotti Park leading a coordination meeting, a gathering that takes place every morning with representatives of each of Occupy Wall Street’s roughly 40 working groups.

“Our conversation is about what it means to be a movement and what it means to be an organization,” he says to the circle. A heated discussion follows, including a debate over whether the movement should make specific demands.

I find him afterward on a low stone wall surrounding a flowerbed in the park. He decided to come to New York City, he said, from the West Coast for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He found a ride on Craig’s List while staying at his brother’s home in Champaign, Ill.

“It was a television event when I was 17,” he says of the 2001 attacks. “I came here for the 10-year anniversary. I wanted to make it real to myself. I’d never been to New York. I’d never been to the East Coast.”

Once he reached New York City he connected with local street people to find “assets.” He slept in the parks and on the street. He arrived on the first day of the occupation in Zuccotti Park. He found other “traveler types” whose survival skills and political consciousness were as developed as his own.

In those first few days, he says, “it was the radicals and the self-identifying anarchists” who set up the encampment. Those who would come later, usually people with little experience in dumpster diving, sleeping on concrete or depending on a McDonald’s restroom, would turn to revolutionists like Friesen for survival. Zuccotti Park, like most Occupied sites, schooled the uninitiated.

“The structure and process carried out by those initial radicals,” he says with delight of the first days in the park, now have “a wide appeal.”

The Occupy movements that have swept across the country fuse the elements vital for revolt. They draw groups of veteran revolutionists whose isolated struggles, whether in the form of squatter communities or acts of defiance such as the tree-sit in Berkeley to save an oak grove on the University of California campus that ran from Dec. 2, 2006, to Sept. 9, 2008, are often unheeded by the wider culture. The Occupy movements were nurtured in small, dissident enclaves in New York, Oakland, Chicago, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Bands of revolutionists in these cities severed themselves from the mainstream, joined with other marginalized communities and mastered the physical techniques of surviving on the streets and in jails.

“It’s about paying attention to exactly what you need, and figuring out where I can get food and water, what time do the parks close, where I can get a shower,” Friesen says.

Friesen grew up in an apolitical middle-class home in Fullerton in Southern California’s Orange County, where systems of power were obeyed and rarely questioned. His window into political consciousness began inauspiciously enough as a teenager, with the Beatles, The Doors, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He found in the older music “a creative energy” and “authenticity” that he did not hear often in contemporary culture. He finished high school and got a job in a LensCrafter lab and “experienced what it’s like to slave away trying to make glasses in an hour.” He worked at a few other 9-to-5 jobs but found them “restrictive and unfulfilling.” And then he started to drift, working his way up to Berkeley, where he lived in a squatter encampment behind the UC Berkeley football stadium. He used the campus gym to take showers. By the time he reached Berkeley he had left mainstream society. He has lived outside the formal economy since 2005, the last year he filed income taxes. He was involved in the tree-sit protest and took part in the occupations of university buildings and demonstration outside the Berkeley chancellor’s campus residence to protest fee hikes and budget cuts, activities that saw him arrested and jailed. He spent time with the Navajos on Black Mesa in Arizona and two months with the Zapatistas in Mexico.*

“What I saw in the Zapatistas was a people pushed to the brink of extinction and forgetting,” he says. “Their phrases ring true: Liberty! Dignity! Democracy! Everything for Everyone! Nothing for Ourselves! The masks the Zapatistas wear check egos. People should be united in their facelessness. This prevents cults of personality.”

“I have no interest in participating in the traditional political process,” he says. “It’s bureaucratic. It’s vertical. It’s exclusive. It’s ruled by money. It’s cumbersome. This is cumbersome too, what we’re doing here, but the principles that I’m pushing and that many people are pushing to uphold here are in direct opposition to the existing structure. This is a counterpoint. This is an acknowledgment of all those things that we hate, or that I hate, which are closed and exclusive. It is about defying status and power, certification and legitimacy, institutional validation to participate. This process has infected our consciousness as far as people being allowed [to participate] or even being given credibility. The wider society creates a situation where people are excluded, people feel like they’re not worth anything. They’re not accepted. The principles here are horizontal in terms of decision-making, transparency, openness, inclusiveness, accessibility. There are people doing sign language at the general assembly now. There are clusters of deaf people that come together and do sign language together. This is an example of the inclusive nature that we want to create here. And as far as redefining participation and the democratic process, my understanding of American history is that it was a bunch of white males in power, mostly. This is radically different. If you’re a homeless person, if you’re a street person, you can be here. There’s a radical inclusion that’s going on. And if it’s not that, then I’m not going to participate.”

The park, especially at night, is a magnet for the city’s street population. The movement provides food along with basic security, overseen by designated “peacekeepers” and a “de-escalation team” that defuses conflicts. Those like Friesen who span the two cultures serve as the interlocutors.

“It draws everyone, except maybe the superrich,” he says of the park. “You’re dealing with everyone’s conditioning, everyone’s fucked-up conditioning, the kind of I’m-out-for-me-and-myself, that kind of instinct. People are unruly. People are violent. People make threats.”

“We are trying to sort this out, how to work together in a more holistic approach versus just security-checking someone—you know like tackling them,” he says. “Where else do these people have to go, these street people? They’re going to come to a place where they feel cared for, especially in immediate needs like food and shelter. We have a comfort committee. I’ve never been to a place where there’s a comfort committee. This is where you can get a blanket and a sleeping bag, if we have them. We don’t always have the resources. But everyone is being taken care of here. As long as you’re nonviolent, you’re taken care of. And when you do that you draw all sorts of people, including those people who have problematic behavior. If we scale up big enough we might be able to take care of the whole street population of Manhattan.”


Now let's go back about 42 years, to an address by an exact contemporary of mine to a mixed audience of young and old. (I don't want to give away too much, even though, google being what it is, there's no point in trying to keep it a secret and I will identify the speaker before the end of the post. Perhaps it won't take you that long.)

Many of the issues that I've mentioned -- those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multi-media age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we're feeling. We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen heralded across the newspapers. Senator ______ has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words -- integrity, trust, and respect -- in regard to institutions and leaders we're perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.

Every protest, every dissent, whether it's an individual academic paper, Founder's parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive -- now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see -- but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men's needs. There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere.

But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. To be educated to freedom must be evidenced in action, and here again is where we ask ourselves, as we have asked our parents and our teachers, questions about integrity, trust, and respect. Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity -- a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said "Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust." What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All they can do is keep trying again and again and again. There's that wonderful line in East Coker by Eliot about there's only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we've lost before.

And then respect. There's that mutuality of respect between people where you don't see people as percentage points. Where you don't manipulate people. Where you're not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word "consequences" of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now.


Now I'm intrigued that John Friesen was so affected by 1960s music, because that brings up the fundamental, fatal confusion that did so much harm in those days--a confusion that might be summed up in that memorable phrase, "the personal is the political." Rock 'n Roll was a response to the emotional sterility of an age--a sterility, I now think, born of trauma, the incredible worldwide trauma of the Depression and the Second World War. It allowed a new generation to discover a depth of feeling that their parents had not bee able to teach them, because they had suppressed it. Leonard Bernstein understood this perfectly in a 1967 show he did about rock on CBS, now available on youtube. For our generation, he said, music was background--but not for these kids. Of course, emotionally sterile or crippled families still exist all around us, and maybe Friesen came from one. But the problem, then and now, was to think that the same intensity of feeling, of pure emotion, could also rule the political world. Modern political systems like our own are based upon rationality, not emotion. That is their strength. Because human beings are not, indeed, completely rational creatures, it's a struggle to hold our system up to its original rational ideals. Lately we have been failing that test. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last. But that system remains our only hope. The longing of the two young people quoted above to escape the whole thing is a fantasy, a natural fantasy to be sure, but one that leads nowhere. That is why, I think, both Friesen and Hillary Rodham in 1969--yup--both fall into inarticulate rambling when they try to describe what they are after.

And there is another link between the two, one very close to my heart. Hillary Rodham went into law and into politics. (She certainly allowed passion--falling in love with Bill Clinton--to rule her life: it took her away from everything she had ever known and sentenced her to 20 years in Arkansas, an ordeal conveyed quite well in Primary Colors.) But her contemporaries who went into academia did not have to abandon their rejection of the norms of western civilization. They could spend their careers propagating it, and they did. And now, two generations of undergraduates have passed through college without learning anything, unless they are very lucky, about what the American system is actually capable of. You will never convince me that that has not contributed, massively, to the collapse of our political life. You cannot rebuild the New Deal if you have no idea what it was or what it did.

It's natural enough, when young, to rebel against the routine and regimentation of modern life. It is, to some extent, unnatural, although it also offers its own rewards, and it's the only kind of civilization that allows people to live in such numbers as they do today. And yes, it can be improved. We could, like the Europeans, start our working lives with four weeks' vacation a year, for example, and we could have single-payer health care, a national system of day care centers, and a great deal more to make life more relaxed and rewarding. Nor can we blame the mess we are in, obviously, on the younger generation. The Millennials (b. 1982-2000?) have grown up every bit as obedient to authority as they GI grandparents were, and every bit as ready to enlist in a great crusade. The older generations have failed them by failing to offer one. They will have to undertake their own, smaller local crusades--but to have a long-term impact they will have to be within the framework of modern life, not outside it.

We are moving into a new Gilded Age. The first Gilded age had its own malcontents, many of whom fired by revolutionary enthusiasm, including Coxey's Army, Greenbackers and Grangers, the IWW, the anarchists, and many more. They have left very little behind. But the young people of the Gilded Age included W. E. B. Dubois, the founder of the NAACP; John L. Lewis, probably the most influential labor leader of the twentieth century; Henry Ford, who transformed production; Harold Ickes, Roosevelt's Interior Secretary and head of the Public Works Administration, who began life as a social worker and built dams across America; and the other titans of my current work in progress, Henry Stimson, George C. Marshall, Cordell Hull, and, of course, Franklin Roosevelt himself. They did not reject the system: they built it. Having grown up amidst chaos, they tried, with extraordinary success, to create order. The experience of the Boom generation, sadly, was the reverse. Had it not been for the Vietnam War, we might have revived America emotionally without crippling it politically. But that, we will never know.

Some years ago I did a post here about Bernhard von Bulow, the German chancellor of a century ago, who managed to avoid the danger of a new war until his fall in 1909. Reflecting on the differences between him and his successors after the catastrophe of the First World War, he remarked that he had the advantage of having lived in foreign countries that allowed him to see his country in better perspective. I lived abroad only once, but I have spent much of my adult life living in past eras and foreign countries through my work, and perhaps that has similarly distinguished me from my contemporaries. (Within universities, sadly, my fellow historians are now pretty much convinced that no one ever had a worthwhile idea before 1970 or so.) This hasn't stopped me from believing in progress. It has stopped me from believing that an outburst of enthusiasm can lead us, quickly and almost painlessly, into a new world.

8 comments:

Bob in NC said...

I agree OWS is liely to peter out or turn nastily impotent.

Here's something your contributors might like to know:

The White House has sent a request for “Input”, see WhiteHouse.gov/Advise

Here’s what I sent:

GOALS

1. Create jobs rebuilding our infrastucture. Take money from Defense budget and corporate & farm subsidies. Put at least 1 million back to work doing this. Fund only contractors who meet existing Federal laws.
2. Restructure and rebuild our K-12 schools; innovate tech & science schools. Integrate employer apprenticeships with higher education.

FEDERAL ACTION

1. Hold hearings to indict financial manipulators (Henry Paulson, Mozilla, on down) who caused this crisis. Jail those who broke laws. Insist banks write down housing losses and collect all taxpayer funds from them, AIG, etc.
2. Establish a new WPA (Work Projects Admn) to oversee & coordinate infrastructure contracts.
3. Establish scientific review of all energy sources: oil, gas, coal, solar, wind, etc., and set up impartial panel to "pick winners" -- i.e. safest nuclear plant design, most efficient solar etc, then standardize regulations on these winners (like France did with nuclear).

COMMUNITY ACTION

Implement the above

Anonymous said...

I see the parallels, but it might be even more instructive to compare both with the activites and speechs of the youth movement of the 1930s.

Gerald Meaders said...

Professor

Great commentary, about so many things, music, history, idealism, politics here and there, persons prominent and obscure.

So many things here cry out for comment, approval, qualification, disagreement,

but too much here, really,

to address in a comment,

without doing injustices to how it hangs together as a statement.

All the best,
GM

galacticsurfer said...

Business Week article last week or so on this topic("not your 60s hippies protests" or similar title. The author said that in the 1960s hard hatted workers attacked antiwar young protestors and injured 70 people. Young people were only talking antipolitics but now are talking finances and the workers and unions are joining the protests.

An article on one of the so-called "horizontal" organizers Graeber, 50 years old ex-professor, with working class self educated parents , who participated in anarchist rule over Barcelone in 1930s. He got in on this during/after Seattle protests so from this man's background the whole thing has long historical roots.

Young people will always be soul-searching and at the front of revolutions. I read also the Generational Dynamics blog and he tries to keep a strict scientific anaylsis according to the generational theory and maintains that the big protests in Iran were never going to come to a revoltuion but would fizzle out as it was like USA in the 1960s, a generational awakening. So yes, 30s workers and student protests should be made the basis of any comparison as anonnymous said. That is "scientific" in the cyclical historical sense, regardless of the nonsense the people said. The results and the surrounding circumstances are what is important in this case.

Anonymous said...

"If you look at the troubles which happened in
European countries, this is purely because of the
accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare
society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The
labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than
hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out
of whack.

"Why should, for instance, within [the] eurozone
some member's people have to work to 65, even
longer, whereas in some other countries they are
happily retiring at 55, languishing on the beach?
This is unfair. The welfare system is good for any
society to reduce the gap, to help those who
happen to have disadvantages, to enjoy a good
life, but a welfare society should not induce people
not to work hard."
---Jin Liqun,
the supervising chairman of China's sovereign wealth fund

Aristides said...

The reason there are no good paying jobs is because Wall Street has exported them and has given the few that are left to workers it has imported, both legal and illegal, because they will work for wages far lower than any American would.

Since a bipartisan vote by Congress granted permanent most favored nation status to China and President Clinton signed it, we have lost over 5.5 million manufacturing jobs alone. Those aren’t just blue collar jobs, but also white collar ones such as engineers and chemists. Our government could take measures to bring back those jobs, but with both political parties being in the pocket of Wall Street, such action is most unlikely.

Mr. Friesen echoes a familiar complaint of youth that the 9-5 jobs he worked were “restrictive and unfulfilling”. The sad fact is that the vast majority of jobs are tedious, unrewarding and low paying.

Considering how incompetent and corrupt America’s overpaid top executives have proven themselves by the companies they have driven out of business and the taxpayer handouts they have requested, it is entirely possible that Friesen and his fellow travelers could do a better job at the helm of our major corporations for a fraction of the cost and would certainly find such work to be anything but “restrictive and unfulfilling”. Unfortunately, the reality is that this will never happen. The good ole capitalist network insures that only filthy rich fellow travelers quality for such positions, no matter how incompetent or corrupt they may be.

The “Occupy” movement seems to be interested in implementing a European style welfare/socialist state for America, so every worker has well paid “unrestrictive and fulfilling” employment, “free” health care, subsidized housing and food. We can see how well that has worked in Europe!

Jin Liqun, chairman of the board of supervisors of China Investment Corp recently said of that, "If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. "The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking."

The rest of us working hard to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table working jobs which are “restrictive and unfulfilling” will likely have about as much sympathy for the “Occupy” demands as we did for the Wall Street bailout.

Publion said...

DK speaks wisely and has prompted several thoughts.

First, there is precious little left of the ‘traditional political process’ because the past 40 Biblical years of ‘revolution’ have led to identity-politics and thence to symbolic politics and thence to celebrity politics, while simultaneously reducing the pols to ‘deal politics’ (think of a used-car salesman focused on only one thing: getting the deal closed and the sale made before closing time).

Second, the New Left of the late Sixties(whatever its strengths and possibilities) is no more; the Post-modern Left of today is a fundamentally different entity, and its embrace of the Universal Solvent of pure and unrelenting skepticism against any possibility of a common-weal or a Beyond or any Higher Law or Higher Things or Larger or Common Narrative operates as a black-hole, sucking in any genuine political life around it.

Third, ‘liberation’ is useless as a concept until one has defined the nature of the being-to-be-liberated; otherwise there is no way of knowing if a change you wish to impose upon it leads towards a more genuine life for the ‘liberated’ entity, or leads away from a more genuine life and toward a more deranged life for the entity.Throwing a fish into water is or is not liberating depending on what type of fish and what type of water: a freshwater fish ‘released’ into salt water is not, strictly speaking, liberated.

Fourth, ‘respect’ is an excellent thing. But one must first have respect for one’s own position, and that includes the responsibility of ensuring that the position itself is worthy of respect. But in light of the third point how can one ‘respect’ a non-liberating dynamic if ‘respect’ means accepting it?

Fifth, modern politics is no longer about rationality. Identity Politics has drunk far too deeply of the wells of totalitarian agitprop and manipulative mass advertising and the manipulation of (rather than the genuine enlightening and informing of) public opinion; current politics seeks the limbic, rather than the prefrontal-cortical, response and indeed avoids the latter like vampires avoid holy water.

Sixth, given the damage wrought by the past 40 Biblical years of identity politics, ‘many revolutions all at the same time’ (one of Gerald Ford’s most unfortunate verbal misadventures), and the Pomo assault on Western Civilization, the Beyond, and any possibility of large or common Meaning, there is no longer a conceptual basis for trying to form a New Deal-type alliance.

Plus, of course, the ‘civic infrastructure’ called the Citizenry has been allowed to rot away, and indeed has purposely been ‘deconstructed’. To borrow a trope from our modern-day cadres of the Illuminatae, ‘it’s not your grandfather’s America anymore’. Agreed: that America and that Citizenry is gone, baby, gone. Hey, hey, ho, ho – it was deconstructed.

Seventh and last: the one historically redeeming aspect of the First Gilded Age was that it took place in a context where the Framing Vision and the ideals and characteristics associated with it and required for it were still in place, capable of influencing the course of incorporating the post-Civil War corporative wealth-creation into some sort of service to the common-weal. That context is gone now and there are for all practical purposes no nationally shared ideals (or a national community to hold them) that might act as brakes or rudder for the Second Gilded Age.

I discuss these points often on my site, especially my recent essay on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard” in light of our situation 14 long years later. My site is Chezodysseus at blogspot.

Publion

Misty said...

Aristides,

I do not believe that the current crisis is a result of the European welfare state. Paul Krugman sums up my thoughts more succinctly than I probably could in his article today when he says, "the nations now in crisis don't have bigger welfare states than the nations doing well - if anything, the correlation runs the other way. Sweden, with its famously high benefits, is a star performer, one of the few countries whose GDP is now higher than it was before the crisis. Meanwhile, before the crisis, 'social expenditure' - spending on welfare-state programs - was lower, as a percentage of national income, in all of the nations now in trouble than in Germany, let alone Sweden.

Oh, and Canada, which has universal health care and much more generous aid to the poor than the United States, has weathered the crisis better than we have." I have also heard from my friends in Australia that they have far social safety nets than Americans and their economy is still fairly stable.

If you care to read Krugman's entire article on the issue, it can be found at: http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Euro-crisis-is-not-due-to-failure-of-welfare-2264783.php