Capitalism burns all around us, leaving behind the debris of a bankrupt financial and political system. The illusion of limitless economic growth and the endless utopia of consumption have been forever shattered. Now governments have only austerity and hard times to offer us. Yet their assurances are wearing thin. Our political and economic masters know that people no longer believe in them, and behind the calm visage of power there is fear, fear of the specter of insurrection, the old fear that has haunted the imagination of every regime. Doesn’t everything – from the statements of politicians to the market predictions of economic gurus, to celebrity reality shows – now have a slight air of desperation, as if the entire spectacular-capitalist system (a system which in any case no longer even believes in itself and probably never did) is terrified lest it reveal the nihilism behind its facade?
This is a year of insurrections, from the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi, to the squares of Athens, Madrid and Wall Street. Miraculously, ordinary people gathered in public places – reclaiming these as public spaces – without authorization and without official representation. In some cases, they brought down governments, and in others they exerted a new kind of mass pressure on obsolete political systems that no longer even pretended to represent them. Revealed in the autonomous zones of Tahrir and Syntagma squares was the absolute abyss between people and the formal mechanisms of state power. In the people’s gesture of refusal, a new political space opened up, one whose consequences no one could determine in advance. The significance of these movements and occupations lay not so much in their achievement of concrete goals, but in their embodiment of a new collective political life, a form of politics that rejected representation through the tired old channels of political parties. The cry of the indignados in Spain was “You do not represent us!” – which can be understood both as a complaint against the lack of representation and as the desire to break with representation altogether and to act for themselves.
One of the lessons from these insurrections – and there are many – is that there is now no longer any difference between formal democracy and dictatorship; it’s simply a matter of degrees of repression. The power of the police, whose ghostly presence in the life of democratic states Walter Benjamin saw as devastating, is felt everywhere. What is the difference between Mubarak’s or Assad’s attempts to shut down social networking sites in Egypt and Syria, and Cameron’s threat to do the same in the UK?
And what is democracy in any case but a system that encourages a mass contentment with powerlessness, a collective voluntary servitude legitimated by the purely symbolic ritual of voting? The recent insurrections should be seen as being more than just about democracy, which in any case is now such an ambiguous term. Rather they were a collective form of voluntary inservitude. They were the realization that every system of power is ultimately fragile and dependent on the alienation and relinquishment of our power.
I talk of insurrection but not revolution. The revolution overthrows one regime of power only to replace it with another; the insurrection suspends power altogether, resisting its own institutionalization. Perhaps Max Stirner put it best: “It [the insurrection] is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.”
A working forth of ourselves out of the established is the necessary threshold that any radical politics must pass through. It is the micro-political terrain upon which the insurrection takes place, at once ethical, psychological and spiritual, at once individual and collective. It involves an interrogation of one’s desires and attachments to power, as well as a transformation of one’s relation to others.
What made the recent riots in the UK seem different from the insurrections elsewhere was that they lacked this ethical (as well as political) dimension and were characterized by the worst kinds of incivility. I am not talking here about the defilement of the idols of property, which we should have no respect for. But what strikes us about the rioters was not their disrespect for the commodity but their absolute reverence for it – all that rebellious energy squandered on the desire for some silly designer label! What better example of what Stirner calls possessedness – where one becomes possessed by the thing, the object one desires to possess? The riots and looting were the ultimate expression of the fetishistic excesses of consumer society, and were thus thoroughly internal to it – as well as being internal to the binary of law-and-order/criminality. The problem with the riots was not that they were too transgressive but that they were not transgressive enough – they did not signify any kind of break with the religion of consumerism.
In the wake of the riots, the old bogeyman of anarchy loomed up again, authorizing a further intensification of police power. But anarchism – as a mode of politics and an expression of a free, ethical life – has little in common with this sort of quasi-religious spectacle of violence. Rather, anarchism involves a certain ethical discipline. Yet this is a self-imposed discipline of indiscipline, or what Foucault calls willful indocility. Obedience, as La Boëtie recognized long ago, comes easily to us – it is habitual. And so we must become disciplined into becoming undisciplined; we must become the ascetics of freedom. We must acquire, as Georges Sorel put it, “habits of liberty.”
Anarchism, or as I prefer to call it, postanarchism, is more than a political ideology. It is the ethico-political horizon today of all radical politics. The desire for an autonomy that can only be realized associatively and the emergence of movements that do not so much protest against the misery of our lives but joyously affirm the possibility of a radically different life are the unmistakable signs of the deepening of this horizon.
Saul Newman is a political philosopher and Reader in Political Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Newman is known for coining the term “postanarchism.” His latest book is The Politics of Post Anarchism.
We are living through a dramatic and ever-widening separation between normal state politics and power. Many citizens still believe that state politics has power. They believe that governments, elected through a parliamentary system, represent the interests of those who elect them and that governments have the power to create effective, progressive change. But they don't and they can't.
We do not live in democracies. We inhabit plutocracies: government by the rich. The corporate elites have overwhelming economic power with no political accountability. In the past decades, with the complicity and connivance of the political class, the Western world has become a kind of college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders.
This situation has led to the disgusting and ever-growing gulf that separates the superrich from the rest of us. State politics in the West in the past four decades has become a machine for the creation of gross inequality whose patina is an ideology of ever-more vapid narcissism. As the Eurozone crisis eloquently shows, state politics in the West simply exists to serve the interests of capital in the form of international finance, which exerts a human cost that Marx could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. No matter how much people suffer and protest in the street, it is said, we must not upset the bankers. Who knows, our credit rating might drop.
It is time to take politics back from the political class through confrontation with the power of finance capital. What is so inspiring about the various social movements that we all too glibly call the Arab Spring, is their courageous determination to reclaim autonomy and political self-determination. The demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are actually very classical: they refuse to live in authoritarian dictatorships propped up to serve the interests of Western capital, corporations and corrupt local elites. They want to reclaim ownership of the means of production, for example through the nationalization of major state industries.
The various movements in North Africa and the Middle East – and one is simply full of admiration for their individual and collective courage and peaceful persistence – aim at one thing: autonomy. They demand collective ownership of the places where one lives, works, thinks and plays. Let's be clear: it is not just democracy that is being demanded all across the Arab world; it is socialism. And the tactics that have been developed to bring it about are anarchist.
There is a deeply patronizing view of these protests – common among Western politicians and their intellectual epigones – namely that they want what we have: the liberal democracy and neoliberal economics of our fine regimes. On the contrary, the movements in North Africa and the Middle East should be held up as a shining example for European and North American societies of what suddenly seems not only possible, but increasingly probable: that another way of conceiving and practicing social relations is not just possible, it is practicable.
Politicians in the West should be scared, very scared. The clock is running down. What we see emerging across our societies with increasing boldness, coherence and clarity are movements that refuse the separation of politics and power and who want to take power back through the invention of new forms of political activism.
It is in this spirit that I'd like to celebrate and congratulate the protesters in the Wall Street occupations and their followers all around the world.
We should not predict the future, but I think we are entering into a period of increasingly massive social dislocations and disorder which harbors within it countless risks, dialectical inversions, defeats, dangers, false dawns and fake defeats. But I think we are all coming to the powerful and simple realization that human beings acting peacefully together in concert can do anything – and nothing can stop them.
Something is happening. Something is shifting in the relations between politics and power. We don't know where it will lead, but the four-decade ideological consensus that has simply allowed the creation of grotesque inequality has broken down, and anything and everything is suddenly possible. What we require now is solidarity, persistence and the endlessly surprising power of the political imagination.
Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has authored over a dozen books including the celebrated Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance in which he argues for an ethically committed political anarchism.
Cool’s original power had derived from its formative role in forging a modern personality type, a style of engagement – indirect, ironic, flexible, infused with humor, sometimes flippant – that was adopted with success by a growing percentage of the population.
But the relentless mass marketing of cool has tainted this style of behavior and made it seem inauthentic or contrived to a growing number of individuals. It is almost inconceivable that anything could happen, at this late stage, that would restore to cool the freshness and vitality it possessed in the fifties and sixties.
Of course, the old-school cool ethos will not disappear completely. Even when some color or fabric is passé, it still finds its way into our wardrobe. But cool now lacks conviction and energy. Above all, its economic force is diminishing. And this, more than anything, will accelerate its decline. One busy cash register is worth more than a thousand pundits. The arbiters of taste – at record labels, in films and TV, in consumer marketing, in media – will respond to these economic shifts rather than lead them. But follow they must, or disappear from the scene. Their successors will not make the same mistakes. Over time, this will transform even the last institutional bastions of cool into promoters of the postcool worldview.
One of the most interesting spectacles of postcool society will involve the dominant forces of the old paradigm scrambling to co-opt the new one. Packaged and slick and phony will attempt to become down-home and natural and authentic. We can see this playing out in many arenas – from music to clothing, politics to daily news. But let us take one sector of our economy and show how this works.
In consumer food products the postcool celebration of the natural and authentic is spelled out in the recent dramatic growth in the sale of organic fruits and vegetables, vitamin supplements, antibiotic-and-hormone-free beef, and other products that previously existed only on the fringes of the food industry. Of course this trend spells trouble for packaged-food multinationals, who are the real losers here. How do they respond? In the postcool society, representatives of the old paradigm imitate the new one. So we have the Naked Juice company, with its line of 100 percent natural, unsweetened beverages … but it’s owned by Pepsi.
The registered slogan of this company is “Nothing to Hide” – but one thing is clearly hidden in its marketing campaigns: its connection with PepsiCo Inc. Visit the Naked Juice website, and see if you can find the name of the parent company anywhere. Goodluck! Then again, Naked Juice needs to deal with its competitor Odwalla, a leader in all-natural juices … owned by Coca-Cola.
Next stop on your itinerary, please visit the website for Dagoba, a company committed to the highest quality organic chocolate, and see if you can find any mention of parent company Hershey. But Mars Inc., maker of M&M’s and Snickers, has gone even further, acquiring Seeds of Change, which sells more than six hundred types of 100 percent organically grown seeds. And we have the Back to Nature brand of cereal and granola … but it is now owned by Kraft foods, makers of Cheez Whiz and Velveeta. Heinz, through its minority position in Hain Celestial, has an equity share in dozens of natural brands. I could cite countless other examples. In fact, almost every major purveyor of packaged, processed food loaded with preservatives and various chemicals is trying to position itself as a champion of healthy, natural eating.
But the fascinating angle here is how well hidden these relationships are. In the old days, Hershey would make sure everyone knew they were involved when they sold chocolate. After all, what could be a better endorsement for confections than the Hershey brand name? Or Coca-Cola’s for beverages? Or Pepsi’s? These companies have invested billions of dollars in building and enhancing the value of their brand names. Pepsi alone has purchased celebrity endorsements at untold cost from Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, David Beckham, David Bowie, Shakira, Jackie Chan, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Tina Turner, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce Knowles, Mary J. Blige, the Spice Girls, Ray Charles, and many, many others. Yet now this company needs to conceal its involvement in the fastest-growing segments of the beverage market? What gives? We see the same old shift in field after field – music, media, consumer products, retailing, politics, fashion, academia, the internet, almost everywhere you look. Organizations that have spent decades investing in their image, their brand, their logo, now admit that it’s best to junk all that and start with a clean sheet of paper.
This paradox will become part of the day-to-day life in postcool society. Even if postcool celebrates the real and authentic, the simple and down to earth, it doesn’t mean that these attributes will actually dominate public life. Instead we will find a grand charade of phony pretending to be authentic, of contrived acting as though it is real, the intricately planned putting on the mask of the simple and unaffected. In many instances, postcool will just be the same folks who brought you cool, hiding behind a mask.
But this faux postcool will increasingly be forced to compete with the real thing. Grassroots movements will be built around the core postcool values of simplicity, authenticity, naturalness and earnestness. These will flourish outside the market place, in public and private discourse, shaping attitudes and interpersonal relations. True, they will have an economic impact, but their significance will not be reducible to dollars and cents. Postcool will inhabit people’s psyches long before it takes control of their wallets.
This core distinction will be our chief guide in distinguishing the phony corporate maneuverings from the real grassroots changes that will drive postcool society. The former will always inhabit a product or service. And if the cool was a friend to business, seeing its own destiny in accessories and gadgets, the postcool will have a more ambivalent relationship with the prevailing economic interests. The new ethos does not require expensive new accessories and often will take positive delight in downscaling lifestyles and paring back on unneeded extras.
Simplicity, authenticity, naturalness and earnestness … I mentioned these as though they were parts of a product positioning exercise. But in fact they will be in the foundations of the postcool personality type. Just as the cool was at its best when internalized as a way people acted and not just trumpeted as a marketing message, so will postcool have its greatest impact as a way people instinctively deal with situations and circumstances. In a book such as this, the examples gathered inevitably come from things that can be seen, heard, touched, measured – in short, what we call empirical evidence. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that these are the primary signs of the new postcool era. Many of the most salient changes will be those that we can grasp only indirectly and will not be measurable with any exactitude by statisticians and pollsters.
For the same reason, postcool will be less fickle and changeable than cool. Postcool is not just another style, another trend. It is the antithesis of style, of trendiness. And because it reflects an emerging personality type and not a passing fashion, postcool will probably be around for quite a while. Many merchants of cool will be tempted to dismiss or misinterpret postcool, seeing its key elements as a new, marketable lifestyle, as just one more way of being cool. We can already see many examples of this shortsighted behavior. But ultimately the attempt to treat postcool as just another variant on cool will fail.
For 50 years, the prevailing tone has been focused outward. Cool was in the eyes of the beholder, and those who lived by its principles needed constantly to be attuned to what others were thinking and doing. As trends and fashions and languages changed, the cool cats had to change as well … or risk being left behind. And even though good guys are expected to finish last, according to the adage, cool cats are not allowed to bring up the rear. The cool was a demanding deity, requiring its adherents to keep up with the times, to maintain a retinue of admirers. But postcool, by nature inward focused and self-directed, will not be so easily budged. From now on, the game will be played by different rules.
Postcool will be more intense than cool. Higher strung. More determined and less easily deflected and distracted. For this reason, many parties will strive to win the allegiance of this rapidly growing constituency. Political candidates will build their campaigns to appeal to the new psyche. Marketers will position products to maximize their perceived value to this demographic. Social movements and churches and media will all try to attract them. Who wouldn’t want these assertive, strong-willed folks in their camp? But the challenges involved in securing their support should not be minimized. The postcool person is not a belonger, not a follower. As Arnold Mitchell discovered when he first identified this group in the seventies – when it was just a tiny subset of the American public, maybe one or two percent by his measure – these individuals are the hardest to market to … because by their nature they are suspicious of marketing and resistant to its methods.
As a result, the postcool society will be full of surprises. The scene will be marked by unexpected grassroots activities that come to the fore despite the best-laid plans of politicians and corporate execs. Exciting? Perhaps. Dangerous and volatile? Certainly at times.
Of course, even postcool may sow the seeds of its own eventual decline. A new personality type lasts longer than a passing fashion, but even deep-seated character patterns and emotional styles can outlive their usefulness. Just as the cool personality became less effective over time, postcool could find itself replaced by some yet-to-be defined paradigm. We can already see postcool’s vulnerability in its unstable reliance on bluntness and aggression, its susceptibility to anger and confrontation. When so much irritability and adversarial posturing permeate our national and local lives, won’t this breed another reaction in time, a new cooling down of the temperature and the emergence of consensus building and a softer, gentler emotional style in public and private life?
But old-school cool will not come back. The cool is dead … at least as we knew it back in the second half of the 20th century. If aspects of it still hold center stage from time to time, they will do so because they have adapted to the new state of affairs. As with all passing movements, the age of cool will inspire nostalgia and retain a few adherents, those folks who always look back dreamily at the past, lamenting the loss of the good ol’ days. But the future belongs to a different personality type and hard-nosed assertiveness. It’s like everything Mom and Dad told you is finally coming true … only now you will be hearing it from your own children.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and contemporary culture. He is the author of eight books, including The History of Jazz, Delta Blues and The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
As I walk through lush Brownstone Brooklyn at night, I try to reconcile the stillness that pervades these streets with the urgency of Liberty Plaza. I wonder, did I lose touch with the beauty of the wet bluestone and wrought iron gates somewhere along the course of one of my many feverish runs to the 4/5 station to get to Wall Street?
I know that I’m young, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the quaking I feel is the strength of my own heartbeat or the earth moving under my feet. I wonder if it’s impossible at any age to have perspective from the midst of something that resembles a movement; I imagine the view from the middle of the General Assembly looks dramatically different than the one from a calmer, more static place.
Yet the quaking earth hypothesis is supported by the fact that perhaps the sight from Liberty Plaza is similar to the one a person might have glimpsed from Tahrir Square, from Madison’s Capitol Square, from Ben-Gurion Boulevard, from among the indignados in Madrid and the protests in Greece. In Liberty Plaza, occupiers’ disaffection is part of a powerful surge of global discontent, a surge that is manifesting itself in the collective realization of bodies and voices as strategic tools for communication and collective action.
Many feel an immediacy springing from a loss of stability, an affordable education, a job, a home, a pension, health insurance, that we had taken for granted. Even those who don’t face immediately precarious situations are admitting to themselves that something has been terribly wrong for some time. We watched as our government deregulated the market and then bailed out the banks whose criminal activities led to the financial implosion; as they cut the taxes of the rich while 15% of American families fell below the poverty line; as they spent billions of dollars on imperial wars that divert money away from education and infrastructure and from any real solution to avert environmental degradation. If we’ve been apathetic, its because we’ve failed to see how to act. We have learned to be wary of “Change.” We lack faith in our politicians, entrenched as they are in the impotent theatrics of the two-party system.
Yet in Liberty Plaza people find themselves confronted with a radically inclusive new platform. In the horizontality of this platform, many who are disaffected now see a means of engagement that is immediate and real. If Occupy Wall Street has failed to use this platform to limit itself to a discrete set of demands, it is because it refuses to undermine the depth and breadth of what’s wrong. OWS’s message is entangled with its form, its self-sustaining structure in which the group provides for its own physical, social and intellectual needs. Given the group’s collective intelligence, it is becoming evident that its members can teach each other as much as, if not more than any, institution can.
Much has been made of the people’s microphone. When it works, its power is immense. People within hearing range chant each other’s words to convey them to those standing on the periphery of the larger group. Each person pits herself between the mouth of the speaker and the ear of the listener in a manner that is both self-affirming and egoless. Loudly echoing the voice of another feels a bit like cursing, a vigorous and strangely gratifying speech act.
Occupiers are learning to use their bodies in ways that break with the modes of moving circumscribed by our culture of efficiency and the near-total encroachment of privatized space. Its members are learning how to stay in one place, how to civilly disobey, how to dumpster dive, how to interrupt auction proceedings. They are also confronting their bodies and the bodies of others, the cold, the rain, the smells and needs that bodies have that we can deal with so quickly in the comfort of the office and the home.
Occupy Wall Street is streamed, tweeted, posted and reposted. It is a curiosity, a screen for projection, a spectator sport, everyone’s favorite and most hated child. Yet people continue to come daily who earnestly want to join or to aid the effort. OWS has become a receptacle for the lost progressive hopes of a previous generation. Despite the attempts of some media sources to caricature the occupiers, they constitute a diverse group that is attracting even more diversity. OWS has gained the support of many labor unions and community groups. Most importantly, its existence is enabling a necessary discourse to enter the mainstream.
Liberty Plaza can also be an immensely frustrating, anxiety-provoking and chaotic space. Sometimes the chaos threatens to prevail and dissolve the whole. This is a particular risk now: as its numbers grow, OWS must become capable of incorporating interested parties in meaningful ways and must begin a real conversation about its own future. Yet in this heightened unknown many sense something uncanny, something real that feels unreal because it has been suppressed by layers and layers of banal culture, farcical politics and corporate sterility. They see a spark of true, systemic indeterminacy, in contrast to the systems entrenched by the collusion of money and power.
Occupy Wall Street is still a writhing, inchoate entity, yet it has a structure that can and must beget more structure. Its future is totally unknown, but the commitment among OWS’s ranks, the resonance of its message, and the appreciation so many feel for the rupture it presents from the status quo, assures me that this occupation will persist, whatever this persistence looks like. Perhaps the group will recognize the naivety of the dreams of its most utopian members, and compromise soon to settle on a list of specific economic demands. Occupiers are smart and knowledgeable, and have big, open ears to those even more so. More probably the occupation will continue to grow, to spread to other cities, to protest, and to self-determine, choosing to partake in a society whose structure its members believe in, rather than one corrupted to the point of disrepair.
In my more lucid moments, I know that Occupy Wall Street is a lichen that is preparing the intractable political ground for more substantive plant growth. In my dreams, however, Occupy Wall Street will evince its true self not when the media and well-meaning liberals tell it to produce a message, nor when it hands over its momentum to sympathetic, institutionalized political groups, but when the egalitarian entity it has created itself yields some kind of answer.
Nicole Demby is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn.