by John Duffy at Grow Food, Raise Hell
Since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and around the US and the globe, there has been a constancy of criticism coming from the entrenched establishment and its would-be supporters. It’s easy enough to ignore the banality and mindlessness of the critiques coming from this camp—critiques aimed at the supposèd lack of direction amongst Occupiers, or their supposed lack of employment, or their supposed lack of hygiene.
What is frustrating is the sideline coaching from non-participants who think themselves far too clever to get involved, but who nonetheless feel they know the exact direction and focus that the movement must take. It surprises me that Occupy Wall Street’s original impetus somehow slides over, under, and around the attention of those who proclaim to know what would be best for it. It surprises me more when Occupy participants miss the obvious reality of what I believe their movement is, so I will say it plainly here: Occupy Wall Street and its sister protests around the world are a cultural resistance.
It is forgivable to observe the name “Occupy Wall Street,” to see that the original protesters planted themselves as close to the heart of the financial death cult as the enforcement arm of the state would allow, and to arrive at the conclusion that all Occupy efforts are a reaction to monetary malfeasance, both public and private. However, it is clear with even a cursory study of the class demographics and ideological spectrum present that Occupy Movement groups are resisting a broader cultural meme—of which the recent fiduciary debauchery on Wall Street and in Washington is but one outgrowth.
Occupy protests have targeted everything from Goldman Sachs and Bank of America’s recent abundance of criminality, to homelessness, the degradation of the environment, the corporate influence in politics, the toxicity of the food supply, foreign wars, domestic repression, foreclosures, Wal-Mart, big Pharma, etc, ad nauseam. This plethora of targets, this seemingly endless hit list, is not as the critics smugly proclaim: a lack of focus or meandering of thought. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the greater cultural malaise.
The challenge of focus for Occupy protests is not necessarily one of targets or tactics. Though strategic maneuvering of their members to the pinch points and bottle necks of the dominant culture is a conversation of constant necessity, more pressing is the discovery of the poisonous heart of the dominant culture. What is the common thread which grafts together the banks, the oil companies, the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems, the drugging of children, the indefinite detention of “terror suspects,” and the imprisonment of non-violent drug possessors?
To me, it seems clear that the dominant culture is a culture of domination. The dominant culture, the culture of industrial civilization — our culture — is a culture that rests on a foundation of violence, exploitation, slavery, and brutality. In the privileged West, it is harder to see this than in, say, the Niger Delta, the Brazilian rain forests, or in the sweatshops of Asia. To be sure, the barbarity of our culture is present domestically, but as most modern, “civilized” people have lost connectivity with the natural world, they likely don’t see their city, suburb, or local shopping mall as an exploitation of the land. Further, they take little notice of the flowers, the salamanders, the moths, or any of the over two hundred species which go extinct every day on Earth, including those who forever exit their own communities. Somehow, the exported violence of the tar sands mining operations in Alberta Canada, the Pacific or Atlantic garbage “islands,” or the petroleum wastes of Azerbaijan or newly liberated Iraq remain invisible to those who benefit from these graveyards the most.
Perhaps you don’t see the congruity between environmental destruction and the revolving door that exists between government and finance. Perhaps you don’t see ours as a culture of domination, of violence, of exploitation. Let’s look at it another way.
This culture is one in which it is not only acceptable, but celebrated, to destroy life for profit. Indeed, the only way to profit, the only way to generate material “wealth,” is by killing. A tree doesn’t become lumber unless you cut it down. Cows don’t become McBurger filling until they have been executed (and of course, tortured). Even humans don’t become laborers until they have been enclosed into a capitalist marketplace, off of and separate from the land, where they must choose between labor and starvation.
Thus there is a price tag hung around the neck of every living thing. Since the only laudable goal according to cultural dogma is the accumulation of excess capital, it is axiomatic that this culture will cut down more trees every year, drag more and bigger nets across the ocean floor every year, lay more concrete every year, burn more petroleum every year, in a never ending quest to convert the living planet into the abstract object of our insane festishizations: money.
Though it may be a bit heavy for some, it must be stated; capitalism is reaching its endgame. The growth requirement which capitalism has built into itself is now colliding headlong with the limits of the natural world, which provides all of the raw stock required by industry. Like an organism undergoing ketosis, the system is beginning to devour itself for sustenance. Governments create imaginary capital to patch over privately created black holes of debt, while financial institutions feast on the accumulated “wealth” of the poorer strata of western society by mechanisms like foreclosure, stagnant wages, increasing tuition, increasing interest payments, layoffs, and every other conceivable and now commonplace “austerity measure.”
It is this amalgam of symptoms of collapse that the people of the “first” world are now experiencing. Of course, these first-worlders have lived on the backs of exploited peoples, animals, and land bases for generations, all too happy to consume to their heart’s content in a drunken orgy of self-righteous hedonism. (In their defense, the masters of capital did scar these people at birth with the brand of consumption, bombarding them day and night with self defeating advertisements and a ceaseless campaign of pro-authoritarian, anti-life propaganda.)
This monstrous architecture has not only built into an impossible growth requirement, but also a series of premises concerning the validity of hierarchy. This is a culture of domination. Our culture regularly promotes and lauds the violence committed by armies and police against civilians. It regularly promotes and lauds violence committed by men against women and children. It regularly promotes and lauds the violence committed by humans against animals, against plants, against water, soil, and air. This culture reviles any violence in the reverse direction. Violence may not flow up the hierarchy without being met by immense over-pressures of force. Those at the top and their mercenary defenders will not allow their status to be questioned, let alone challenged. Hence, we witness the unfounded violence so far committed against Occupy protesters, despite their near uniform docile behavior.
Now that the maw of imperial capitalism is fixing itself upon the white people of the first world, now that a future of more luxury and entitlement is not a guarantee, there is a revelation to the true nature of the culture appearing to those willing to see it. The chant “banks got bailed out, we got sold out” rings of this dawning truth.
The system isn’t here for you—you are here for it. You are to turn your cog, move your little piece of the machine, keep it marching, keep it killing, and the moment you become a net drain on the architecture of this society, you find your place in the cast iron furnace next to the felled redwood, the poisoned aquifer, and the Bangladeshi slave. You will be chewed up and spit out like the expendable component that you are. It’s no longer just the exotic foreigners in some far away land who are getting in the way of profit, now it is you. Now it’s your family, your co-workers, your town that stands between a corporation and black ink on the bottom line.
This is the intellectual hurdle before the Occupy Movement. Do they dare shine a light on the built-in flaws of capitalism? Do they dare indict long held “self evident truths,” and stand united behind the idea that another world truly is possible? Themselves organized in an egalitarian, horizontal fashion, making decisions by consensus and demanding respect for all participants—do Occupy Movements dare recognize their anarchism, and move forward with stolid conviction that it is not merely a handful of nasty players they are fighting, not merely a corrupt electoral process, but toxic imaginings of power and right in the minds of the masters, and indeed, in the minds of all men born into the belly of this twisted device?
At the moment, many Occupy groups and members will hold up their hands and soften their voices to meekly proclaim, “Now, I’m not against capitalism or rich people,” instead hiding behind a desire for “financial fairness.” The problem is that one cannot, with full education on the topic, simultaneously believe in capitalism and financial fairness. Volumes on this issue have been written by men smarter and more articulate than myself, so I will spare the reader an extrapolation on this topic, hopefully sufficing to say that the logic of capitalism dictates that were one man capable of accumulating the capital to do so, he could buy all of the land in the world. Any logic that leads to that conclusion is not logic at all, and must be abandoned by all sane people.
If the Occupy Movement, fearful of public opinion, fearful of poll numbers and the manufactured and implanted concerns of fence-sitters, decides not to move forward and proudly adopt that theirs is truly a rejection of the dominant culture, it will stagnate. As this culture has made a mess of all of its participants psychologically and emotionally, it is folly to fear the misguided notions of non-participating members of the culture, especially at such an early stage of our collective activism.
On the other hand, if the Occupy Movement recognizes its true heart, embraces its foundational disdain for the culture at large, and follows through with whatever manifests from that heartbreak and that need, it has a chance to do something incredible: to inspire. To inspire true revolt in the hearts of all people. To inspire an outpouring of collective sympathy, a great sigh from a worldwide population subjugated for lifetimes upon lifetimes. The Occupy Protest Movement and all of its congruent revolutions around the world have in their hands, if they have the courage to use it, the ability to inspire one last flare up of human fire, human beauty, and human love amidst the hastening emotional sterility of the world. It is from these sentiments, from this rage and awe burning in our guts that freedom, peace, and communion are born.
Yet at this moment, a brave new world dawns. The empires of the world are increasing the scale of their violence as they scrape and claw for dominion of the remaining global hydrocarbon reserves, and capitalist institutions, including nations themselves, cannibalize one and other for survival. A shadow of tyranny and fascism is creeping forth, extinguishing the last remnants of freedom people have, and in this dark hour, I implore the Occupy protesters, of which I am a dedicated one: bring light, in what is otherwise a truly blackened future without us.
John Duffy is an artist, activist, and voice of the Grow Food, Raise Hell podcast. He currently resides in Austin, Texas.