Friday, October 14, 2011

Thoughts on Today's #OWS Victory.

Obviously, lower Manhattan has been around for a long time.  The asphalt and concrete of the streets of “Wall Street” are the burial mound of a city that crept north organically until gridlines exploded in rigid formation out of a time above 14th Street.  The main friction between the police and OWS protestors is over the interminable bulge of the protests out onto these sidewalks.  The main concern of the police is that the protestors not interfere with the people flowing along the straight lines and sharp angles of the neighborhood. 

Being downtown it becomes obvious that the “cleaning” and sanitation of the park was not an excuse to evict the protestors: it was a metaphor for the eviction.  Something organic is growing at the base of the Euclidian canyons of lower Manhattan that offends this city's new sensibility.  It is, after all, a beleaguered and boring cliché to point out the last two mayoral technocrats who ran our city have “sanitized it”.  Not that I’m nostalgic for the New York City of the last couple decades of the 20th century.  I thank god I did not ever have to live in that city.  But by occupying Wall Street the protestors have reminded us that we were sold a false dichotomy between a city in ruin—pushed there by Wall Street—and a safe and vibrant city run by and for Wall Street where people are restricted to two activities, working and consuming.  OWS’s existence simply poses the question, why can’t we have a safe and vibrant city run by and for our neighbors?  Why didn’t we construct our city, instead of having it constructed around us?   

Beyond the dissonance of its amorphousness there is an irony to the occupation.  In a sense it is bringing people back to Wall Street.  The human element of the Hayekian spontaneous order has drifted away from Wall Street. Gone is the chaos of the exchange floor, the great mob of price discovery.   The floor of the NYSE now stands mostly empty.  The occasional trader fiddles at the new computer terminals now and again.  The spontaneous order of Wall Street has become increasingly cold, automated, and too complex and artificial for human digestion; Oskar Lange would be proud.  The spontaneous order of OWS, on the other hand, is of a different nature and accomplishes a miracle far more impressive than simply generating a few bits of information; the spontaneous order of OWS makes conscious decisions.  The story economists tell is of markets where atomistic individuals bounce off of each other, jockeying for position, concerned only with themselves, and reaching equilibrium without intention.  Through the politics of OWS, atomistic individuals bounce of each other and reach equilibrium by discovering intention.

This is of course a utopian conception of OWS but I consider OWS an experiment in my utopia.  I have grown up alongside this movement, coming back to the intellectual tradition now and again.  Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, for instance, remains the best inoculation against resurgent waves of each against all social Darwinism.  Whenever I come back I am always reminded that radical democracy: the spontaneous rule by the mob predicated and justified by a basic norm that justice, fairness, and the wellbeing of everyone involved is the utmost priority is the only way to build a truly just society.   I have always—inevitably--put it aside in favor of compartmentalizing precisely as utopian.  Not able to reconcile these abstract notions with the reality that the utopian ideology that dominates actually existing political economics is neoliberalism.  I am overly fond of referring to Slavoj Zizek’s comment on Al Jazeera in which he points out that we don’t really have anything to fear from the “Islamism” of the Muslim Brotherhood because they had been forced to adopt the language of secular democracy.  He contrasts this with the ideological hegemony of the Ayatollah during the Iranian revolution which forced the myriad of ideologies within Iran at the time to adopt an Ayatollah-centric position and language.  Until about a month ago Neoliberalism was the only language we spoke, despite inclinations to the contrary.  The great ideological conflict that threatened to devour this country is a dispute between “left” neoliberalism and “right” neoliberalism.   Left neoliberalism is unpalatable because it is driven by the technocratic arrogance of the “best qualified managers.”  Right neoliberalism is unpalatable because it is driven by the dogmatically naïve idea that there is no such thing as economic power.   Both, of course, are unpalatable because they primarily function to advance the interests of the richest and most powerful.

OWS has given us a new language of words and actions.  It was in defense of this language that 3,000 people poured into Zuccotti Park this morning, the vast majority prepared and expecting to be arrested.  We all showed up this morning because there was nothing else left for us to do in the face of an arbitrary decision by a conglomeration of interests more powerful than we are.  I showed up this morning to speak this new language one last time.  I am probably several years older than the “median protestor.”  I have lived through the gut wrenching experiences of being silenced and ignored dozens if not scores of times over the last 10 or 15 years.  I have always accepted--probably as inevitable--that there was nothing left to do and I so shrugged and did nothing.  This time passive acceptance of the inevitable was intolerable.  I do not know what effect our showing up this morning had on allowing the core of this movement to stay lodged in the lions paw.  I only know that we showed up.    

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