10 October 2011

Interview about the Occupy movement

Devin Hunter of Pagan Newswire Collective conducted in email interview of me for an article about Pagans and the Occupy Wall Street movement. As is the way of things, only some of my comments fit into the finished article, so here I have the full text of my comments.

The Occupy Wall Street campaign has been launched to highlight the economic, health, and taxation variances between the ruling 1% of the American population and “the other 99%”. Do you feel that as a Bay Area citizen you have witnessed a distinct variation between the lower and middle class and the upper-class?

Living in San Francisco confronts one with juxtapositions of class in a way that one does not see as often in suburban America. In an ordinary day — or even an hour — walking around San Francisco one can rub shoulders with well-to-do professionals, hardworking poor immigrants, bohemians both rich and poor, dot-com millionaires, the impoverished underclass, service industry workers just scraping by, and even the stratospherically wealthy. For a while I was working in an office in the same building as Gump’s, a big store which sells beautiful, useless, inconceivably expensive tchotchkes to rich people, yet fifteen minutes’ walk could take me to the charity kitchen under Glide Memorial church in the Tenderloin. I suspect that a similar overlap between rich and poor in everyday life in New York City contributed to the Occupy Wall Street movement beginning there.

This all comes at a time when both the US and World economies are experiencing extreme fluctuations in stability, in your opinion how does this effect your own life as well as those within your immediate community?

I count myself lucky that I work as one of the skilled professionals relatively insulated from the recent shocks in the economy, but I still find these times frightening. Technocrats like me live on a shrinking ice floe, in danger of falling out of the charmed circle: you see it in our obsessions with our careers and our kids’ educations. In the Bay Area, I know a lot of left-leaning professionals who feel frustrated at our complicity in a machine we help to run but cannot seem to change because even we do not hold the real power.

In my greater community, the economic shift has had unmistakable effects. I know a lot of people facing very hard times with no end in sight. Solar Cross has had to set aside our financially ambitious community center project for now, and focus on more tactical projects, because the economy has made the necessary fund-raising impossible.

As a pagan community leader do you feel this is the beginning of the next “American Revolution?”

(I'm not sure I qualify as a “pagan community leader.” I think of myself as just an articulate guy who keeps heavy company.)

I feel the temptation to think of Occupy Wall Street in revolutionary terms, and believe that it has exciting implications if its momentum continues to build, but I hesitate to call it a harbinger of “revolution” just yet. If the Occupy movement proves as resilient as I hope, the next stage will take a form no one can predict. But we cannot yet say what, if any, lasting significance OWS will have. Significance on the scale of the original American Revolution remains a stretch, and much more than we can likely expect of this particular movement, but I hold out hope. The rhythm of American history includes a punctuating crisis once each human lifetime — the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression/WWII era — and if the pattern holds, that time has come again, so perhaps Occupy Wall Street will prove to be a manifestation of great change brewing.

For the first week of protests media coverage of the events was slim to nonexistence. Reports of major media covering-up the protests by not providing them the appropriate coverage have been made. As a citizen how do you feel about the supposed media cover-up?

I would not call the early invisibility of Occupy Wall Street in news media a “cover-up,” exactly. Never attribute to malice what one can explain better with incompetence. The early hesitation by mainstream news institutions to cover OWS reflects an inability to fit it into the standard narratives they understand. As the growth of the movement has finally compelled attention, we see the media’s limited narratives in another form as they reach for their tropes of hippies and political demands and so forth and stumble trying to describe OWS on those terms. Mainstream American news media is, by definition, a mechanism of our social/political/economic order, which makes it unable to apprehend a movement like OWS which makes a radical critique of that order. The media’s inability to cover OWS properly is frustrating, but unsurprising; if they could tell the story of the fundamental systemic problems that we face, we wouldn’t have those problems the way we do in the first place, and wouldn’t need OWS.

On the first day of protests Comedian Roseanne Barr called for a combination of capitalism and socialism and a system not based on "bloated talk radio hosts and that goddamn Ayn Rand book.” In your own words do you feel that incorporating Socialistic policies into our Capitalistic government is a good thing or bad thing, please explain.

Market capitalism provides enormous benefits. It efficiently allocates resources, produces a cornucopia of goods, and fosters innovation. The abundance it produces sustains modern civilization. But market capitalism for all its undeniable strengths does a lousy job of other things that you want in society, like ensuring that the goods it produces get distributed to people fairly. If you regard prosperity for all as a goal of your society, as I do, then you cannot rely on market capitalism as the only organizing principle in the economy.

The term “socialism” gets overloaded and confused in the US, so I would rather talk about what Europeans call “social democracy”: a society which uses market capitalism to address the many problems it handles well but also uses government to mitigate its rough edges, ensuring that people get fair access to their share of society’s wealth. In the US, we have some elements of social democracy already, like public education and social security, but I believe that we can and should do much more.

To frame this in Pagan terms:

Hermes stands on top of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, cresting a sculpture entitled “The Glory of Commerce;” directly at his back lies the New York Stock Exchange, an institution whose history and spirit descends directly from the agora the Greeks held as sacred to Hermes. I honor Hermes and make an offering to him every day. But a wise Pagan knows that the gods’ purposes differ from our own, and you do not want to live a life of All Hermes All The Time any more that you want to live in Morrigan World or Skaldi World or any god’s domain exclusively. The Pagan sensibility, rightly, sees exclusive devotion to one god as neither desirable nor even truly possible, seeking balance in evoking each god in its time and directed to its proper purpose. So too with market capitalism, a force I respect but wish we had better balanced with its more egalitarian cousins.

The collective movement has proposed a list of four demands for the outcome of the protests which are— One, to protect the environment. Two, to care for the people. Three, to tax the rich. And four, to end the wars. How do you feel this relates to the ethical, spiritual, and economic values of pagans? How do you feel it relates to the Bay Area?

I believe that thinking in terms of conventional demands, even ones as broad as “protect the environment”, misrepresents the nature of the Occupy movement. At this stage at least, OWS offers a radical critique that comes prior to any specific policy solutions. In its rhetoric of “we are the 99%”, Occupy Wall Street says that we have developed a social and political order that does not serve 99% of us properly, that the wealthiest 1% control the system, that therefore that 1% have responsibility for the system, and that until we recognize and address this fundamental failure of equity and democracy we cannot meaningfully talk about more specific problems.

I believe that presuming Pagans to share a set of ethical, spiritual, and economic values which translate in to a specific kind of politics or political agenda misrepresents the diversity of the Pagan movement. Politically and culturally liberal Pagans like me tend to imagine that we represent the core of Pagan culture, but we do not, any more than politically and culturally conservative Christians can rightly claim to represent the core of Christianity. We must respect how Pagans span the full political spectrum, left, right, and otherwise.

Many argue that as Pagans universally call nature sacred, Pagans share a political commitment to environmentalism, but even that seemingly uncontroversial claim of Pagan unity casts our community too simply. Obviously many Pagans have deep ties to environmentalism, and I count myself among them, but that can mean very different things to different people. For example, many environmentalists, Pagan and otherwise, find nuclear power abhorrent, but I myself have come to favor nuclear power because the vital importance of reducing carbon emissions makes it worthwhile to get electricity by every emissions-free method possible. For example, I know a Pagan — not a suburbanite who casts circles in the backyard but someone living very close to nature, deeply committed to reducing his environmental impact — who is also one of the most vigorous global warming skeptics I know. Assuming that “Pagan” implies any particular politics misses the breadth of Pagan culture.

As a Practitioner of paganism, what do you feel as a culture pagans could be doing to support the effort — if at all? If you do not support the protests how could pagans help put an end to them?

I believe that Pagan diversity precludes a general Pagan political agenda, but I also believe that Pagan visibility is important. When Pagans speak and act either for or against the Occupy movement, if we identify ourselves as Pagans that will help to make Pagans visible as citizens.

That said, as both a vigorous supporter of the Occupy movement and a Pagan, I would urge Pagans, as I would urge anyone, to take a close look at the statements from Occupy Wall Street and seriously consider supporting both OWS and their local Occupy movement, as I hope and expect that many Pagans will share my enthusiasm.

On October 6th the ongoing movement moved to the streets of San Francisco which included a march from Mission to its base of encampment at 101 Market Street where is continues. Have you experienced the protests first hand? Do you intend to?

I have contributed supplies to both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy San Francisco, and have visited Occupy San Francisco a few times now, though I did not participate in the 6 October march. I expect to continue to vigorously support both, and I hope to spend significantly more time participating in discussions among Occupy San Francisco participants in the weeks to come.

Protesting and demonstration have been a large part of movements commonly associated with paganism such as Women's Rights, the Green and Environmental Movement, and Native rights. Do you feel that this movement is of spiritual significance to the pagan community and/or US population?

I believe that Occupy Wall Street, like many activist movements, reflects for many people a spiritual hunger that many Pagans would recognize. American bourgeois consumerism in itself leaves a vacuum of meaning and purpose in society and in individual life; at the level of society, the hunger to fill that void can bring people to social justice movements like OWS, while at the level of the personal that hunger brings people to spiritual practice, Pagan or otherwise.

Cornell West famously said, linking the spiritual and the political, “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” and I believe that a spiritual yearning ultimately motivates OWS.

How do you feel the political climate has changed since the beginning of these protests?

I confess that like many politically-aware people, I had fallen into a kind of despair in the last year; in the wake of the supposedly-transformative 2008 election, too little had changed, suggesting that the American political process could not admit, much less affect, the grip which the wealthiest 1% held over our society. The plutocrats had driven the country into a ditch, crashing the economy with terrible consequences for most of us, and yet they still prospered and had the instruments of government supporting and favoring them. It seemed that nothing could loose their grip or get us to even name what we see happening. I spoke dismissively of the possibility of a mass popular uprising confronting the situation, and I was wrong.

Occupy Wall Street has already done more to name and confront the systemic problems in our society than I had believed possible, so I cannot help but feel excited and optimistic about what comes next. I know that other people feel the same way, and I suspect that there are a lot of us.

What do you feel is the best possible outcome from these ongoing protests?

My greatest hope for Occupy Wall Street is that it permanently changes the way we think and talk about politics in America, that we routinely ask the fundamental question, “What is society for, if not to provide for the needs of all of our citizens? What can we do to accomplish that?” I hope that OWS unlocks the yearning for justice and equity which most Americans feel, turning it into effective action. If we can break the hold of wealth and power over our current politics, and make building a social and political order of justice and equity our new politics, the results would be truly revolutionary.

1 comment:

Ross Wolfe said...

One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

“Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”