'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reflections of an Aging Leftist 

Last night, I took my son to a movie, The Secret World of Arrietty. To see it, we had to go to a multiplex at the Arden Fair Mall. Now, I rarely go to a mall at anytime of year other than just before Christmas, so it is always a small culture shock for me. I was surprised to be among so many people at night, even though, by mall standards, it was semi-deserted, because I am invariably home with my son during weeknight evenings unless we go to a small pizza place or yogurt shop. The people use communications technologies with which I am unaware, listen to music with which I am unfamiliar and talk about things I haven't heard about before.

Prior to the start of the movie, there was a video admonition that no texting is allowed during the feature presentation. The specific theatre for our film was nearly empty, which could be a reflection of the fact that we went on Thursday evening, or that the movie isn't very popular, but I had the disquieting feeling that it was indicative of the fact that movie theatres are now an endangered species, about to become extinct. The previews went on interminably, especially for someone like me used to watching films at the Pacific Film Archive (amazingly, you sit down, the light dims, and the film starts!) and arthouses, so much so, that, after about the sixth one, my impatient son gently asked, are they going to end soon? Fortunately, the film itself was a delight.

Upon coming to work this morning, I went to a nearby cafe and got some tea. The man at the register was talking to his friend about Arkham City, a recently released Batman game. As with my trip to the mall, I experienced a sense of being a foreigner, capable of speaking the language but otherwise isolated. Gaming is a phenomenon that is mystery to me. Millions of people buy them and play them on their playstations at home, and I have the most minimal understanding of the experience, except that they appear to be very good at keeping kids occupied, frighteningly so. Surely, there are significant social and political implications to this phenomenon, but, if so, I have no idea what might be, other than an observation that it appears to be yet another way for people to isolate themselves with technology.

Such experiences cause me to wonder, what is the purpose of trying to engage people politically, either through this blog or over the radio, two increasingly antiquated forms of communication? How it is possible to reach people who have socially organized themselves in ways that I don't understand? Even if I can, does what I say have relevance to them, or do I sound like some hill country Baptist preacher, speaking in a dialect long since abandoned? And, if I have these problems, imagine what it must be like for people trained in the baroque rhetoric flourishes of 20th Century Marxism and feminism.

Ultimately, I can only take refuge, paradoxically enough, in the avant garde individualism of people like Donald Ritchie, the American who decided to stay in Japan permanently after his arrival in 1946, and indulge his obsession with the unfolding modernity and postmodernity of Japan within the context of his classical cultural referents. His courage lies in his simple, persistent refusal to allow the market and the mercurial trends of pop culture to dictate his interests and his intellectual relation to the world. It is a paradoxical refuge, because I, unlike Ritchie, believe in the possibility, indeed, the necessity, of a utopian, liberatory collective human enterprise. Without one, how can the human race survive? Even if we survive, how can we avoid the increasing probability of a truly genocidal extermination of billions of people who no longer have a place as either a producer, a consumer or a debtor in a world transformed into one of mechanical and virtual manufacture, communication and distribution?

For me, Occupy represents a gossamer thread of hope, a possibility, however slight, that people can organize themselves, from the bottom up, and avoid these dystopian outcomes. Many of the participants are young, tech savvy people, racially diverse (in California, at least), with a recognition of the hierarchical institutions of social control that oppress them. Occupy Oakland, for all of it problems, is the most inspiring, an occupation that has sought to engage young people, poor people, people of color and the working class more broadly. Perhaps, it's time has already come and gone, but, if true, which I doubt, it will still serve as an inspiring experience for those who come after it, inspiring not just because of its successes, but also because of its failures, failures which have resulted from its ambitious effort to confrontationally challenge the inherent violence and brutality of this society.

Hence, I put forward my perspective about Occupy with care, because I'm not on the front line, and, beyond that, as a cultural outsider, lack the insight to confidently make recommentations. Are the Fuck the Police marches in Oakland on Saturday evenings a bad idea? An activity that alienates people that might otherwise support Occupy Oakland? Probably. But I haven't lived in Oakland and been subjected to the predations of the police for years, or been attacked with tear gas and flash grenades during occupations, marches and direct actions, as many in Oakland have been. I can't dismiss the possibility that these marches may, in fact, anticipate a greater public willingness to challenge the power of the police in the future. In other words, the repressive power of the police over their lives may turn out to be a seminal issue for young people who are also being impoverished by austerity. Leftists, especially older ones, need to recognize the interrelationship between police repression and poverty instead of talking about them in implicitly mutually exclusive terms.

I am, however, confident enough to insist upon one thing: Occupy must be centered around the principle of the most radically inclusive democratic perspective, otherwise it will degenerate into yet another manipulative, liberal representational effort, or fragment into small, sectarian groups, some violent, some not, groups that spend more time fighting one another over the purity of their vision than engaging the people that purportedly justify their activity. There is a path that runs between them, one that requires understanding the day to day lives of distressed people and creating a place for them within the movement. Through this, Occupy can become a truly mass movement that threatens the existing social order. The repressive measures directed against Occupy to date reveal the potential for such an effort.

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