23 February 2012

What about meeeeeee? (Competing in the Olympiad of Middle Class Guilt - Part II)

We Are All Clowns Now, part of a series by CANVAZ
Temple Lane South, Dublin, 23rd February
Possibly the best catchphrase in the world was recently taught to me by the four year old son of a good friend, who upon seeing any of the grown-ups in the room talking amongst themselves would sidle up to one of them and with big anime doe eyes enquire, "What about meeeeeee?". I know not whether this comes from an epilepsy-inducing cartoon, a tale of anthropomorphic trains or is the product of his own overachieving mind, but it lodged in my brain like a photo-op of a skipping Taoiseach gamboling across the street eager to have his head patted by any passing European technocrats.

While I do not like to give my parenting friends advise on child-rearing (or rather, they do not like to hear my marvelous suggestions, no matter how many times I tell them that children are the key to competing with China's prison labour factories), I do believe this lad has a bright future ahead of him in print media, possibly as the editor of The Irish Times, for in essence their recent "Ireland's Squeezed Middle" series that set out to "examine how Ireland's squeezed middle is coping with wage cuts, job losses and debt" amounted to nothing more than one long plaintive cry of "What about meeeeeee?"

Over on his blog Richard McAleavey took the paper to task, accusing it of:
"trying to fashion a depoliticised readership … with a newfound sense of common identity, forged amid recession, which can be easily and productively targeted by potential advertisers… [that] instead of creating political engagement on the part of citizens, concerns are fostered and appetites are stimulated… [for] the function of the Irish Times, along with that of other Irish newspapers, is to present a political programme, the imposition of mass unemployment and the destruction of the welfare state, which is being conducted in the interests of the wealthiest groups in Irish society, as a moral imperative, divinely ordained."
He argued that the ultimate goal of the series was to remove the working class from the equation altogether in the minds of the readers, to extinguish any questions of class conflict by denying their existence (as in the US mantra that "we are all middle class now") or focusing attention elsewhere. I found myself nodding along with McAleavey's assessment, grumbling to myself about those damn petty bourgeois with their private health insurance and their newspaper buying ways, shaking my fist angrily in the air with a loud "Harumph! Harumph!", and then suddenly I realised, "wait a minute, I'm middle class! I have health insurance, I read newspapers, what about meeeeeee?"

Back in the early days of #OccupyDameStreet I found solace in the nominally apolitical nature of the protest, writing somewhat naively that:
"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."
and McAleavey quickly challenged me on this approach, arguing 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)"
which stopped me in my tracks and prompted a major rethink on the language of protest, leading me to ask if:
"by avoiding the language of those traditions from which [the Occupy Movement] has evolved is it 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 is it simply 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 tacitly 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?"
Nearly four months later it now seems that the global Occupy Movement has lost a significant amount of steam, somewhere along the way as we crossed over the artificial barrier between 2011 and 2012. It's certainly not done, dusted and ready to be relegated to the dusty annals of history, but unfortunately it cannot be denied that it is not the vibrant force for change that it once promised to be - hopefully this is just a lull and Spring will see it bloom once more, but...

Now I've lived through this roller-coaster of hope and disappointment before, a decade ago with the alter-globalisation movement. After the Battle for Seattle the attention shifted to Europe, with mass demonstrations in Prague, Gothenburg and finally in Genoa where the deaths of Carlo Giuliani at the hands of a police bullet and Susanne Bendotti, struck by a vehicle as she tried to cross the Italian border at Ventimiglia to join the protest, shocked the world. Two months later the Twin Towers fell, and George W. launched the global War on Terror that silently added anti-capitalists to the Axis of Evil, classifying their actions as the work of domestic terrorists along with environmentalists, anti-war campaigners and anyone else who dared to stand up to a morally bankrupt system that oppressed the majority for the benefit of a tiny minority.

The collapse of the alter-globalisation movement came at the hands of an external event and the opportune neo-liberals who capitalized upon it. The slow-down of the Occupy Movement has no such obvious external influencers, it just seems to have run out of steam, and this is what causes me to revisit my early struggles with the language used, of the 1% and the 99%.

My biggest fear around this is that the global Occupy Movement will turn out to be nothing more than a release valve for the tension built up by Western middle classes over the last three years of recession, an opportunity for them to vent their frustration, feel like they have accomplished something by taking a stand, and then turn their heads back to the grind of daily life and the dilemma of where their next mochafrapachocaccino is going to come from, with the status quo remaining firmly in place. I also fear that the language of the 99% has allowed them to express their resentment at being excluded from real economic and political power without having to question their own roles in facilitating the oppression of the working classes.

Like white suburban kids adopting the clothes, music and language of marginalized inner city African-Americans, affording them a sense of rebellion without either having to experience real hardship themselves or acknowledge the deprivation of others from which the appropriated music and language originally emerged as a response, do cries of "We are the 99%" allow those same suburban kids (and their parents) to clothe themselves in righteous indignation without having to face their own culpability in the marginalization of others?

Back in April of last year, long before the word "Occupy" was ever heard raised in triumph above a single tent, Conor McCabe wrote about the need for the middle classes to awaken:
"It is probably a waste of time telling the middle class of Ireland this - smugness and entitlement and all that - but class is not about choices or purchases or consumption or decking. It is about power. Who has it, and who doesn't... Class is not about choice. It is about power. And the power of the middle classes is just that: middling."
Six months later the middle classes awoke and joined the proletariate on the streets, but by ignoring the traditional language of Class War in favour of something altogether fluffier and more inclusive were the protests neutered from the start because they failed to challenge the fundamental inequalities of the Capitalist system explicitly?

I know that here in Ireland #OccupyDameStreet was/is explicitly an anti-Capitalist movement, though at times it may have struggled to articulate that, but elements of the much larger Occupy Movement in the US shied away from such terms, arguing that they weren't anti-Capitalism, just anti-corporate greed. In this way they gave the appearance not of seeking to change the system, but simply complaining that others were getting a greater piece of the pie than they were, in effect their part of the Occupy Movement was nothing more than one long plaintive cry of "What about meeeeeee?".

Thus for the middle classes are Occupy and The Squeezed Middle just two sides of the same coin, two ways of dealing with the sudden realisation that they, as Conor McCabe suggested, have no power and never really did, with one side allowing anger to be expressed in an ultimately harmless way, the other providing solace and comfort in the form of shared commiserations expressed over a renewed consumerism?

Even with all this on my mind, I'm not prepared to abandon the terminology of the 99%, I still feel it has a unifying power and articulates so much in such a simple phrase. Then again I would say that, for I am part of The Squeezed Middle.

This is a very pessimistic picture that I am painting here, of course, driven partly by my own middle class angst and my uncertainty over my own role in both the causes of this crisis and any possible solutions, and it is far, far too early to write the epitaph of the global Occupy Movement. Even if nothing more were to come of it, it is still something to say that for four months millions of people around the world stood up and said "Enough!".

I just hope that what we are witnessing is not the epilogue of this story, but its prologue.



At 11:33 am, Blogger RichardM said...

Hi Dave,
I know some people don’t like the ‘We are the 99%’ slogan because it disguises the way that class domination under capitalism actually operates. My own take on it was that it was a rather nifty and poetic way of re-introducing class –and contestatory political struggle- into a heavily depoliticised society. And it can be a handy alternative to talking about the many, not the few. But when the likes of Newt Gingrich and god knows who else start talking about how they’re part of the 99%, it’s probably time to park it as a slogan, since that means that it’s now operating in a way that effaces class antagonisms.
One of the difficulties I see with the Occupy movement is that the ‘Occupy’ name in and of itself doesn’t articulate anything. Sure, occupying stuff has long been a political tactic and often a very powerful one. But the name ‘Occupy Wall Street’ simply derives from the call to action made by Adbusters magazine. And yes, lots of interesting and resounding things have happened under the name of ‘Occupy’ but I think the same problem happens as with ‘the 99%’: the name becomes an end in itself, rather than a properly political name where you’re identifying an antagonist and source of conflict. So with ‘Occupy Wall Street’ there is an obvious antagonist –finance capitalists- but with ‘Occupy Dame Street’, that isn’t so clear (I use ODS as an example, but the same thing is true of plenty of other locations).
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the efficacy of the terminology depends on the particular context and political atmosphere in which it is deployed, and indeed the ends to which it is deployed (cf ‘Labour Party’). That applies equally to ‘Workers of the world unite!’ or any other expression from what you describe as the ‘traditional language of Class War’.

At 10:44 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"No power has ever been overthrown except by another power equal to or greater than it" - Lenin.

I don't like Lenin on morality and the use of violence to achieve social transformation and more equality of opportunity, but he was a greater philosopher of power.

He also understood what later became known as the Freudian unconscious - outside a small vanguard circle, most of his "comrades" we're just in it for the power grab.

The "squeezed middle" just want to lead quiet middle class lives. They don't see how the Occupy movement can achieve this for them, so they don't invest any time or energy in that direction. Instead they get training or work experience and improve their CV. They cut back on inessential spending. They "change their values" or whatever. The goal is always the same - unmolested, quiet family lives on middle-income salaries, with home ownership thrown in in the case of Ireland.

At 9:02 pm, Anonymous Belly said...

A Chara,

Just correcting a small factual error in the second paragraph. Child is 4, average age of an Irish Times editor, let's be generous and say 50, making that 46 years from now when he ascends to the job, which would be 2058. What print media?

Otherwise an interestingly meta perspective on middle class hand wringing. Unfortunately at the moment most Western countries follow some form of democracy, so until you can present an alternative that people will take seriously enough to vote for the scope for change is limited. Otherwise you're just sitting around arguing over the appropriate ordering of the words "Of Peoples Front Judea" really.

Very amused by the discussion of schooling by Richard McAleavey on one side and the Irish Times on the other. You'll rarely see the reasons why Ireland remains such a small time country thrown into such sharp relief as tarring someone for life based on the school they attended. If we can't accept that people have adult lives how can anyone take us seriously as a nation?

Then again I would say that as an alumnus of a similar (though not listed) institution....


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