21 February 2012

Citius, Altius, Maxima Culpa (Competing in the Olympiad of Middle Class Guilt)

We Are All Clowns Now, part of a series by CANVAZ
Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, 25th February
While wandering home late last night I bumped into a few of the #unlockNAMA folks pasting up posters on a disused building, and dressed in my business finery I think they all got a bit of a fright as I stopped to greet them. Thanks to the amazing Pancreatitis-plan fitness regime (TM) wherein one can lose 25% of one's body weight in under twenty weeks I no longer appear as garda-like as I once did, but for those used to seeing me only in my Lenin-stepping-off-a-train-in-St-Petersburg Dame Street attire, meeting me in the Really Real World can still come as something of shock. Even though for four months now I've started every media interview with the phrase "Well I'm a business man...", it is becoming apparent that most folks sharing the barricades with me thought that was all just a big fib, an elaborate ruse to hide my secret shame of standing at the bottom of Grafton Street all day in a giant foam leprechaun suit separating gullible tourists from their hard currency in exchange for a glorious green Kodak moment.

For once it has been work and not illness that has kept me from the barricades, these last three weeks have been something of a blur as I have been simultaneously advising an internet start-up on their online revenue plan whilst conducting due-diligence on a second start-up on behalf of a potential investor, leading to some very jarring segues as I moved from a three hour revenue-modeling workshop to a two hour session on facilitating autonomous leaderless resistance. My life has become a nineties' Michael Mann thriller where the action cuts between two parallel stories that you know are destined to collide - and that's the best case scenario (the alternative being that I am Tyler Durden, and have been all along, dun-dun-duuuuun!). One of these projects has now come to an end, and hopefully the second will finish up this week, so with any luck next week will see my gallant return to the streets rallying against the evils of Capitalism, and I will steadfastly ignore the fact that this week I was Capitalism's pimp.

This is the juxtaposition that I find myself in, I have worked for twenty years now and been a boss for the vast majority of that. If call centres are the factories of the 21st century, then I have spent most of my working life as an unwitting paragon of post-Fordism, and while I finally said "enough!" four years ago and removed myself from the shackles of the globalized flat earth nightmare that neo-liberals would foist upon us all, I still earn my living in that grey area called "consultancy" that is the very embodiment of the "What I do/What my friends think I do" internet meme (I might as well say I'm a transpondster for all the good it does).

Helena Sheehan (who published a great essay yesterday asking "Is history a coherent story?") once asked me what my politics were, and I described myself as a Watermelon, green on the outside, red on the inside with black seeds running throughout. I see myself as planted firmly on the hard left, but I am a political agnostic in that I espose no single creed, drawing inspiration from many theorists and ideas. I have spent the bulk of the last four years attempting to educate myself as much as possible on the causes of, and solutions to, social injustice and looming over me from the clutter of my shelves are the many thoughts of an array of ideologs from Kropotkin and Bookchin, Gramsci and Agamben, to Rancière and Gorz, Virilio, Žižek and more Badiou than any one person should ever try and digest, and all that this has taught me is that while I still have no solutions to offer I now know in infinitely greater detail exactly what we are all doing wrong, especially me.


The last four months have been, for me, a concerted effort to move beyond an academic appreciation of the issues and confront the reality head-on. More than this they have also been an attempt to identify solutions and concrete alternatives. I have transitioned from grumpy misanthrope hurling sarcastic barbs on a website to a grumpy misanthrope hurling sarcastic barbs on the barricades (and then recounting those barbs on several websites), and no doubt even as we speak Jim Fitzpatrick is preparing to transform my confused visage into an iconic image that will adorn the bedroom walls of sullen youths for generations to come, but still I worry that each encounter with my fellow revolutionaries will end with me volunteering for my own show trial because sadly (but predictably) I will accept their inevitable accusations that I am nothing more than a running dog of capitalism.

According to Alex Butterworth's curious The World That Never Was, the gentleman revolutionary was all the rage in the twilight of the nineteenth century, with well-heeled anarchists, communards and socialists cutting a dapper swathe through the gentrified Victorian society. While I am certainly no gentleman and am incapable of cutting a swathe, dashing or otherwise, even if you gave me a pair of garden shears and a roadmap, I wish that I wasn't so self-conscious about arriving to a rally straight from work and wearing cufflinks. While a quick trawl through the internets shows that at least one enterprising person has a solution to this dilemma (which seems like cheating although Spanish anarchists during the Civil War weren't so afraid to wear their colours on their sleeves), cufflinks are but a symptom of my psychological malaise, and not the illness itself.

The problem is that after four years of study and four months of action I have yet to identify what my role in all this is, to find something or someone that speaks directly to me and articulates my own vision of what is wrong, and what can be done to remedy it. Many things have come close, but then the language of Class War erupts or worse, something akin to Blair's abhorrent 'Third Way' is mooted, and I shift uncomfortably in my seat and cast my gaze downwards.

I struggle with the language of Class War, not because I disagree with the sentiments expressed, but out of a sense of exclusion born from my position as a medal contender in the Olympiad of middle-class guilt. When Jeffrey Sachs gets up and says, 'The IMF is bad, m'kay", I find myself saying, "of course you know the IMF is bad, you helped them destroy Russia, Bolivia and Poland, all the Millenium Development Goals in the world won't make up for the fact that you perfected the Shock Doctrine". Similarly although I myself have never knowingly exploited workers, I was nonetheless part of a system whose very existence engenders exploitation, and thus I find myself shuffling nervously at the back of activist meetings when talk turns to class politics, staring intensely at my phone like a schoolchild avoiding their teacher's eyes in the hope of not being called on to answer the difficult question, "And what did you do in the Class War?".

As you can see, with my existential angst, cufflinks are the least of my problems. Seriously, the sooner Mary Davis gets the IOC to approve the Middle Class Guilt Pentathlon the sooner I will help Ireland return to the golden days of Michelle Smith, Cian O'Connor and Denis Lynch.

This is why I find myself drawn to the language of the 99% vs the 1%, for I can say without equivocation that I am most definitely not part of the 1%, but during his recent talk at the #unlockNAMA event on Great Strand Street, Conor McCabe expressed his hatred for the phrase "the 99%", saying that it masked the real failures of Capitalism and obscured the genuine Class War, that the only people that couldn't see that there was a Class War were those who were on the wrong side. It made me seriously question whether the use of the "99%" phrase was simply a way for middle-class folks to let themselves feel like they were the oppressed, and not the oppressors.

I struggled with this notion back in the early days of #OccupyDameStreet, but put it on the back burner as something to be tackled another day. However as this new year has progressed and my time on Dame Street decreased in correlation to my increasing workload, my daily sojourns at the Camp collapsing into weekly flying visits as we hit February, the smell from the imaginary kitchen at the back of my mind tells me my saucepan of guilt is threatening to catch fire if left untended for too much longer.

What my role in all this is, what my contributions to the ongoing struggle for Social Justice can and should be, and how I square this all with what it is that I do to put food on the table and a roof over my head, are all issues that I need to resolve in my own mind, and soon.

These are the thoughts that paralysed me during the nano-second that elapsed between meeting the lads out plastering up posters last night and their friendly greeting, "Howerya Dave, see you at the next one, right?", demonstrating clearly that no one but me gives a damn about what I have done, only what I am doing now to take a stand and to try and make things better.

That said, with the Olympics less than a 158 days away there's still plenty of time left for me to get some training in for that Pentathlon.


Oh, its also worth stressing that the CANVAZ piece above has absolutely nothing to do with the #unlockNAMA posters I refer to, the image of a sad clown in a business suit just seemed apt. The #unlockNAMA posters look more like this:

Update: 25th February, new photo of the CANVAZ piece added, taken on a much sunnier day.

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At 6:39 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

very valuable post.
"what did you do in the Class War?" - genius.
the issue of 1%/99% language obscuring class and the agency and culpability of individuals and the middle class is an important one. it reminds me of the idea that it is only white people, in a white-dominated society, who have the luxury of believing they don't have or are not affected by their own ethnicity. only white people can forget their colour; everyone else cannot.

At 7:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fittingly, Mary Davis works with the Special Olympics, not the IOC. I'll leave you to mull that over.


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