Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Globalized oligopoly and its discontents

I stopped by Occupy Wall Street for a brief second look this evening and enjoyed the scene greatly. I would place a bet that there are more political and philosophical discussions taking place per square yard in Zucotti Park than in most Princeton seminar rooms. A few people are mugging for the cameras, but the fact that there are cameras recording the scene in the first place reflects the resilience of the occupation and the inability of city poo-bahs first, to ignore it, then to uproot it with heavy-handed police tactics. These kids are voicing the vast indignation of most of our society, the decent portion anyway, and despite Mayor Bloomberg’s annoyance, they’re going to continue to denounce his plutocrat friends for a good while. I’m just sorry I missed the march [above] past the grotesquely opulent East Side apartments of Messrs Dimon, Koch and Murdoch this afternoon where the monopolists and money-changers gather to congratulate each other after a long day at the office looting our productive economy.

On the way back, I chanced to read through an old copy of a Chilean weekly magazine (The Clinic) that reached me months late, and I was struck by the similarities between our version of bitter frustration and theirs, our shared sense of exclusion from what are ostensibly democracies. Editor Patricio Fern├índez, writing in April, commented on the country’s popular movements and the dissatisfaction they reflect 20 years after the departure of Pinochet from power. Specifically, Fern├índez described a nasty police overreaction to demonstrations against a highly unpopular hydroelectric plant recently imposed on the country that will ruin vast tracts of pristine forests in the far south. But his comments go deeper, to the malaise of a society that is producing economic growth and even creating plenty of miserable jobs (we should be so lucky), but remains in the hands of a select few:

‘There is a vacuum of leadership. Whole generations have detached themselves from public debates. Interpersonal networks have replaced political parties, unions, parishes, student associations. All the most successful mass actions arise out of nowhere, headless. The Transitional Government [read here, by way of parallel, Obama] has accepted, taken on and legitimized the exaggerated glorification of the market, economic growth as the supreme value, individual initiative as unquestionable, the State ashamed of itself’.

One article after another paints a vision of a society encrusted with obscure and corrupted power centers unresponsive to popular wishes, a ruling elite dating back centuries that continues to monopolize position, influence, status and, of course, wealth. This issue of The Clinic came out just before the student-led uprising that continues to paralyze Chile over demands to end Pinochet’s legacy of privatized education—which our friends Bloomberg, Obama, Gates and of course the entire right wing want to imitate here. That movement, 30 years in the making, was an explosion; a good part of the school year has been wrecked by strikes, and the sitting conservative government’s approval ratings are in the toilet.

Ill fares the land, as Tony Judt would and in fact did say: people are deeply disturbed, uneasy, outraged, fed up, in many cases desperate. I would add on the positive side, healthily skeptical, demanding answers and willing to hear new ideas. And sick to death of the chattering classes and their patronizing, dismissive bullshit. (Anything that gets David Brooks’ hair on fire is hitting its target.) Zucotti Park is the mere seed of a rebellion, but it has promise. I’ll be watching closely to see whether the attempts by the Democratic Party establishment to herd its energies into the 2012 elections enjoy any success—if they do not, we’re on our way.

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