03 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - On language (inclusivity or naiveté?)

Find your voice on Occupied Dame Street
#OccupyDameStreet, Dublin, Thursday 3rd November
I love when people leave comments on my posts. It always amazes me that anybody actually reads what I write, especially people that I don't know. Occasionally these comments are words of encouragement but more often they are criticisms and objections that force me to confront my own ideas and motivations for what I have written. Sometimes such reflections change my mind about things, other times they help reinforce previously fuzzy notions. And sometimes there is a middle ground where I'm not so sure, but know there's more thinking on it to be done.

In a post yesterday when highlighting what I saw to be one of the strengths of #OccupyDameStreet, I finished with the following paragraph:
What attracted me to #OccupyDameStreet in the first place, and keeps me coming back day after day, is the fact that it has dispensed with the language and trappings of the old political order and is unafraid to try something new. Hierarchies and leadership, manifestos and party dogma, simple majority rule and the language of class warfare have all been discarded for something far more inclusive, organic, and yes, very messy at times. This is not about Nineteenth Century notions of Left and Right, of workers and bosses, of Socialists and Capitalists, it is about social equality, fairness, justice and inclusivity.
A comment came in this afternoon from RichardM on this paragraph, that the sentiment I expressed in looking for language beyond left and right sounded "neo-liberal", that:
a frequent rite of passage for any neoliberal technocrat who aspires to a position of political power is to disavow the idea that politics involves a differentiation between left and right, but requires in its stead a coalition around a vague consensus (which leaves prevailing power structures untouched)
and this stopped me in my tracks as I read it.

For me the fact that #OccupyDameStreet has not labeled itself as anything other than "a people's movement", a "people's initiative" and a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many nationalities, backgrounds, genders and political persuasions" has always been one of its major strengths.

While I myself would self-identify as strongly anti-capitalist and situate myself firmly on the far-left of the current political spectrum (as anyone familiar with this blog will be tired of hearing), I don't ascribe to any one single doctrine, belief or political tradition and reject labels such as 'anarchist', 'marxist' or even 'socialist', though there are elements of all three within my own value system. I don't believe that any one system has a monopoly on truth, that there is no 'one size fits all' solution as equally applicable in Ireland as it is in Tuvalu, and I think that a workable alternative to Capitalism (and I do believe that there must be one) will draw from a number of traditions and contain elements never before imagined.

I am a theologian, and an agnostic, and I have inherited my attitude towards organised political groups from my attitude towards organised religion, that basically any one group that gets up and says it is The One True Way, and all others are wrong, should immediately be discounted and ignored. As a religious agnostic I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know all there is to know in the universe and that I can say for certainty that there isn't a supreme being, but on the evidence given I find it pretty doubtful and will live my life on the assumption that there isn't. As a political agnostic I feel pretty much the same way about Parties and dogma, I can't prove that any given group do not uniquely have the right answer, but it seems pretty doubtful to me so I will live my life on the assumption that they don't.

Now I'm not sure, but it seems to me that most folks approach politics in a similar way, but subconsciously. Those that do have a strong political affiliation or subscribe to one party or creed are few and far between if you look strictly at party membership numbers. Even those who self-identify as supporters of specific parties while not actually members may not be the strict ideologues that you imagine, if the second and third preference voting patterns in recent elections are to go by. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for, particularly where their belief systems are involved.

On some level I think the #Occupy Movement has tapped into this complexity. While it is firmly on the left and without doubt the direct descendant of the Anti-Capitalist/Anti-Globalization movements of Seattle, Prague and Genoa of a decade ago, the language being used has changed. Instead of "workers" and "bosses" we hear of the 99%, and the 1%, instead of "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay" we hear calls for equality and social justice. The aims are the same, but the language used is more open and inclusive. There are many apolitical people who would dismiss talk of class war, but on the subject of wealth inequality and corporate greed are just as angry as the staunchest trade-unionist, and for this Movement to succeed and actually effect change it needs to embrace the political and apolitical, all who are vehemently opposed to the way in which this country is being governed in the interests of a tiny minority. By rejecting labels and the language of any one political ethos, #OccupyDameStreet has allowed anarchists and marxists, communists and left-greens, socialists and republicans and an awful, awful lot of folks who do not subscribe to any specific -isms to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and try to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

But, and you could tell that there was a 'but' coming from the opening paragraph, perhaps by avoiding the language of those traditions from which #OccupyDameStreet has evolved it is playing by a set of rules created by the very system it is trying to overthrow. By shying away from terms like "workers" and "bosses" because they are too loaded and alienate many are we refusing to confront a system that has attempted to relegate the historical language of struggle and resistance into hollow pastiches? When we look for more inclusive words suitable for the 21st Century are we acknowledging the victory of the 1%, the bosses, over the resistors of the 20th Century, and the 19th, 18th and 17th and so on back to the dawn of the first hierarchies? By changing the words we use are we already acknowledging the supremacy in the 21st Century of the 1%, of the bosses?

I have no answer for this, as I said at the start sometimes comments on this blog propel me into that middle ground where I know more reflection is necessary. On issues of political or philosophical import I have an unfortunate habit of reaching for something by Alain Badiou with alarming regularity, though I disagree with much of what he says, and before I sat down to write this post I took down my well-thumbed copy of The Communist Hypothesis (a handy, pocket-sized book, useful for warding off rampaging American neo-liberals seeking to liberate your country. Next time you do jury duty try and affirm your oath on it just to see the colour the judge turns, give yourself extra points if its the same shade of red as the book's cover), and while I am neither a Communist nor hypothetical there was something in his words that struck a chord:
we have to try to retain the words of our language, even though we no longer dare to say them out loud. In '68, these were the words that were used by everyone. Now they tell us: 'The world has changed, so you can no longer use those words, and you know that it was the language of illusions and terror.' 'Oh yes, we can! And we must!' The problem is still there, and that means that we must be able to pronounce those words. It is up to us to criticise them, and to give them a new meaning. We must be able to go on saying 'people', 'workers', 'abolition of private property', and so on, without being considered has-beens. We have to discuss these words in our own field, in our own camp. We have to put up an end to the linguistic terrorism that delivers us into the hands of our enemies. Giving up on the language issue, and accepting the terror that subjectively forbids us to pronounce words that offend dominant sensibilities, is an intolerable form of oppression.
- Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, pp64-65
I'm not there yet, but that is the joy of life on Occupied Dame Street, every day is a learning experience and every day sees you challenged in ways you never expected. The greatest disappointment for me on a personal level would be to end this all with the same ingrained beliefs as I started with.

So please keep your comments coming in, especially the constructive criticism.

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At 10:45 pm, Blogger PornCrabCombo said...

This piece is brilliantly simple and brilliantly eloquent. You express the hopes, dreams and confusion of this new dawn. Richard had a point but you really explained yourself and the basis of this embryonic movement so beautifully that anyone who read it would want to rush down to Dame Street and give you and everyone else a big oul hug. Thanks for what you're doing. PornCrab thinks you're class. Keep fighting the fight but more importantly, keep thinking the thoughts.

At 11:38 pm, Blogger Alex said...

Hi Dave, interesting post on language and it's use.

The problem I would see with terms like 'fairness' and 'social justice' is their amorphous nature. They are not well defined so a person can project their own preferences and beliefs onto them.
This does make the terms inclusive in the sense of getting people onside ( It would be hard to find someone in favor of unfairness, as they saw it ), but they are not inclusive in the sense of bringing people to the same or a similar interpretation of these terms.

In other words their non-specific amorphous nature which makes them inclusive, also makes it that much harder when trying to iron out a purpose, plan or set of goals, as people realize how different their ideas about fairness and social justice are.

I think it's a key difference between 'soft left' and some of the 'hard left' terms you mentioned, 'worker', 'boss' and 'a days work' have a reasonably well defined, although highly contextual meaning.

At 10:48 am, Blogger RichardM said...

Hi Dave,

I typed up a long and involved reply to your post, but it got devoured in Google's loins when I clicked submit. The gist of it was this: thanks for taking the time out to reply with such a thoughtful and eloquent response. If my initial comment came across as terse, it is because a sort of er, red mist descends whenever I come across the phrase that 'it's not about left or right..', especially when it appears to consign the difference between left and right to another epoch. However I think I understand what you are saying a bit better now, and our views are not that far apart at all.

I think there is a difference though between finding new ways of expressing things so as to win over people who by force of habit, manipulation and indoctrination, hear 'left' and 'right' or 'workers' and 'bosses' and think "oo-er conflict, don't like the sounds of that", and simply denying that the conflict between left and right political traditions has any present day relevance. Now I realise that you weren't really denying the latter at all, but hopefully you can see where I'm coming from.

With that said, I am always wary of the use of 'left' and 'right' as a mere crutch for the expression of ideas, and moreover I do think it is important to bear in mind that this left-right spectrum is the product of a parliamentary democracy whose immediate roots lay in enlightened despotism. So there are horizons beyond left and right, but an essential question is how these can be explored without ceding any ground to the right. The important thing to my mind is to bring people into a process of dialogue where they can learn to see the things you see more clearly, and vice versa, without people feeling that they are being instructed or indoctrinated (and of course, without instructing or indoctrinating them!). That is where I think the real strength lies in spaces such as Occupied Dame Street, and that's why I am grateful to you and others for keeping this space up and running, and hope it continues for a good deal longer.


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