In fifteen minutes, I’ll be heading to Shattuck and Central to take part in the first General Assembly of Occupy Berkeley. I spent the start of this week frantically searching for plane tickets to get me to New York, hoping to stand up and be counted among the protesters of Occupy Wall Street before police repression and collective ridicule brought it to a close. Even I have to confess a certain surprise at how things have developed in the last week: first, they announced an occupation in Oakland starting on Monday, and—not to be outdone—Occupy Berkeley moved up its data a week. There are no cracks in the capitalist façade just yet, but at the very least, I’m starting to think this could be my generation’s 1968.
The poignant, emotional counterweight to the protester’s rage is best chronicled by the “We are the 99%” project. The stories of crushing student debt and multiple minimum wage jobs without benefits speak to the zeitgeist of our time. But, I have to admit, they don’t speak to my own experience. Yes, I make $22,000 a year—putting me in the forty-third percentile of working Americans—but I have $0 in student debt and a credit card balance of $2.85. Academia is not the sure path to a lifelong contract it once was, but as one professor told me “They’re not really getting rid of tenure for us.” I don’t believe in pretending to face more adversity than I actually do: the precariousness of the present and hopelessness for the future many of the 99% seem to feel is not something I share. Which makes me wonder: am I part of the 1% and, if so, does this movement have a place for me?
The Republicans, of course, are already crying “class war.” Much like “socialism”, they don’t know what that means—but as a student of Marx, I’d like to think I do. I’ll point out the obvious an note that for there to be “class war” there have to be classes—some coherent sense of identification with people in a similar economic situation. But in a country where we are more likely to be members of Netflix than any political organization and 90% of us are convinced we are part of the nebulous “middle” (en route to upper, no doubt!), the tools of class war have disappeared. The narrative of the poor and unemployed rising up to fight the rich is a romantic one, but much like the idea that the Tea Party was made up of political neophytes, it’s probably wrong. When the studies come out on Occupy Wall Street, they will certainly show that while a few participants were truly disenfranchised, many were secure, privileged individuals like myself. So if not class war, what is all of this?
I am not so naïve to think that we live in a country where thousands of people will take to the streets to denounce capitalism. In truth, as I see it the underlying foe with which Occupy Wall Street is concerned is not neo-liberalism, or capitalism, or even austerity, but individualism. I don’t mean individualism in the relatively banal sense of free-thinking and free-expression. I mean the individualism in the post-Reagan sense, the belief that “society”, as an entity, does not matter, and that our only obligations are to ourselves. It’s the individualism that manifests itself when crowds at Republican debates clap at letting people without health insurance die in the name of “freedom”, or that stigmatizes the unemployed as destitute due only to their own shortcomings. And yes, it’s also the individualism that tells us that we shouldn’t protest the current system because, after all, we’re comfortable.
Because this isn’t class war, I don’t think Karl Marx holds the keys to understanding Occupy Wall Street. For the theoretically minded out there, though, I offer Karl Polanyi as someone who does. Writing shortly after the Great Depression, Polanyi argued that free markets contained the seeds of their own destruction: in their race to commodify everything, they destroyed the very societies on which they depended. For Polanyi, action always provoked reaction—the movement of capitalism was inevitably met by a counter-movement of society, which stepped in to regulate the market before it annihilated itself. Seen through this lens, the seemingly endless consensus-based meetings happening in Liberty Square—which the media loves to mock—are not oriented towards overthrowing capitalism. Instead, their aim is to recreate society itself—to rejuvenate a sense of collective good and collective efficacy among a generation that has grown up atomized and disconnected.
We are not the 99%. We are one—one society, risen up to prevent its own suicide at the hands of three hundred million individuals.