There must be a word, and probably one beloved of Bolsheviks, for what is occurring right now: there is a sort of apodicticity, an undeniability to it all, one that makes someone like me a bit ashamed to have not seen it earlier. Just two or three years ago my mind still drifted off to more beautiful distractions every time someone started to get indignant about bailing out bankers, or drew that tiresome, overwrought contrast between 'Wall Street' and 'Main Street'. I've always, to be honest, had a difficult relationship to political engagement. A vivid memory still lingers of a lie-in, circa 1988, somewhere in the suburbs of Sacramento, around the pumps at a Shell station. "Free South Africa, Boycott Shell!", we were meant to chant, as the zit-faced teenaged pump attendant looked on confusedly, no doubt thinking to himself: What's South Africa? The historical moment was just wrong, or I didn't have the wherewithal to stick it out through the lean years of activism, through the early post-Cold War period of optimistic triumphalism and end-of-history, end-of-ideology ideology. I just didn't have the right temperament for it. It's my shortcoming, not history's. I admit it.
But the thing about this moment that I am trying to get at is that one doesn't need the right temperament in order to be carried along with the mass upheaval. To say, I'm sorry, this just isn't really my thing, is really nothing other than to say, I am an asshole, a wretch. And furthermore, fuck you. To say that this is just not one's thing would be morally the same as that puerile gesture of the Chicago stock traders who announced with a sign in the window of their skyscraper, We Are the 1%. To not acknowledge that the various Occupations are good and right is to side with those cretins. There's really no other choice.
This is a problem for me, a simple practical problem, in that I've constructed my life largely on the proposition that things that don't matter can be made to matter, and that there's a beauty in elevating them in this way. I've insisted on the beauty and dignity of arcane research projects, of finding universes in a grain of sand, as the saying goes; of retreating. But now I honestly don't know how to carry on in the same vein. I've largely gone silent in this space, for instance. More importantly, I'm finding it harder to justify my rather dogmatic research-for-research's sake approach to the mission of higher education and the humanities. I am still put off by those who would transform the university into a sort of activists' community center, and I still believe that in an important sense it is to unwittingly cede to neoliberal pressures to demand to see the pay-off, in terms of contemporary societal relevance, of the projects scholars and students take on. But still, I confess that in the current climate I am not insensitive to the accusation that to care overmuch about, say, 16th-century theories of fermentation, and to see these as a haven from one's own epoch, amounts to a sort of moral failure.
But what is it about this moment, as opposed to, say, 15 years ago, that makes this sort of failure particularly inexcusable? It has something to do with that word I'm looking for but can't find. Of course there were always people saying, If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. And they were always right, but not to such an extent, I don't think, that living a life of retreat and willed irrelevance had, in virtue of their dictum's truth, anything unseemly about it.
What has changed is that things really have got much worse, even in the course of my own lifetime. In fact, I was born right around the moment of the great global lurch towards the worse, when the relatively stable capitalist order of the post-War era mutated into its hyper-capitalist descendant, an order that could only survive through rapacious growth and constant innovation of new methods of exploitation. I don't need to recite the details as if they were unavailable elsewhere (thanks, Google), but the tragic feature of recent turbo-capitalism, for me, is that with the socialization of risk, and the corrolary privatization of profit, every last corner of our lives, of our experience and our consciousness, has been financialized, has been taken over by considerations of cost, of market viability. Everything that's dear in the profound sense has become dear in the pecuniary sense: palpably, explicitly dear.
And this is where I think anyone who cherishes those things that are thought rightly to be without a price, or that might have a price, but a price that doesn't really capture why they're dear, ought to come out in support of the Occupations. Anyone who wishes that life could be based on the proposition that there are things of value that nonetheless lie outside of the scope of this nebulous thing called 'the Market' ought to be pushing back now, if there is to be any hope for future thriving (which in my case means getting back to the history of the concept of fermentation). This is, I mean, a juncture at which even those who would really rather stay non-political have no choice but to take a side, and at which it is simply self-evident which side that is. I think the word I'm looking for is 'crisis': this is a crisis moment.
When I went to Wall Street a week ago I was, I must acknowledge, put off by the lumpen element, by the 9-11 truthers and all the other frivolous conspiracy theorists: seething with ressentiment, imagining back rooms filled with certifiably evil string-pullers. This is a fantasy whose historical connection to anti-Semitism remains, I think, too evident for any decent person to tolerate it. The world is messed up, yes, but for structural reasons that can be entirely understood, and not as a result of hidden machinations. I found myself thinking: alright, I understand why this come-one-come-all approach is desirable, and I like the metaphor of the rhizome as much as anyone. But couldn't there at least be a minimal party line that would nip this movement's incipient goofballism in the bud? Many will say that we are big enough, and upstanding enough, to let these characters linger without any vitiation of the true message about economic injustice, but our reaction was certainly different a year or so ago when one or two yokels showed up at a Tea Party rally carrying signs that, say, reminded us of Obama's racial identity.
I don't know what exactly should be done to keep the message focused and (to go back to the original connotation of this term) 'correct'. But I do think that now more than ever before it is urgent to rally people behind the idea that they have the resources to understand what's wrong with the world, and to do so without invoking dark complots. Conspiracy theories make me want to vomit. I hate them like I hate the real misdeeds to which they are a reaction, and I think moreover that they abet these misdeeds rather than challenging them. I think, finally, that what is most noble and hopeful about the current movement is the impressively non-conspiratorial and deeply responsible approach of the majority of people involved, who are simply telling it like it is: conveying self-evident truths that you must be either a goofball or an asshole to reject.