Friday, October 21, 2011

What Role for Ideology Producers?

For a few semesters running in grad school, I guest-taught a lecture on Marxism in one of the school's intro to political thought courses.  Every time, I would point out that the students should not, of course, listen to me - as an intellectual, I am an ideology-producer, and my role in the ecology of the capitalist system is to fill their heads with pseudo-ideas that purport to legitimate the system.

Of course, they didn't ever listen to me.

So, as a philosopher considering what I might contribute to a blog about the OWS movement, my first thought was to worry about falling into that trap.  There is a tendency, as a professional producer of ideology, to want to take a stand on what OWS should be "about" - two of the more recent examples that I've read are N.J. Jun's interesting suggestion in this blog and Lakoff's argument for how OWS should "frame itself" over at Common Dreams (I won't be giving away spoilers, I hope, by saying that if you are familiar with Lakoff's general line, you can probably predict the whole article without having to read it).  Of course, other public intellectuals have weighed in on how OWS should present itself, what it means, and/or what it should demand as well.  Not to mention the legions who are pooh-poohing it (please forgive me for not linking to them, my internet is slow - I'm in Ghana at the moment - and it's very boring).

The obvious thing would be to throw my hat into the ring - philosophers are notorious what-it-all-should-mean-ers, and I am sure that people on the ground in various Occupy Here protests should care about my opinion more than Tom Friedman's.  But I'm more interested in what it means that people are trying to say what it means.


The strong current among the ideology producers seems to be to see OWS as a sort of left-wing version of the Tea Party.  And - ideology producers, mind you - by seeing it that way make others see it that way, and make it truth.  I'll be honest - I could imagine worse outcomes than that.  The Tea Party, near as I can tell, started with genuine grassroots discontent (you don't have to agree, you can call it racist, but that doesn't mean it's not genuine), got co-opted by both establishment and upstart right-wing groups, and now largely fuels harder-right GOP candidates and activities.  But at the same time, it's had an actual effect on the Republican party.  If in 2012 we're talking about "OWS candidates" and Tom Friedman is complaining about the leftist extremism in the Democratic party that is poisoning the national debate, that would be sort of neat, in its own right.  Wouldn't it be cool to hear USian politicians talking about the poor instead of the middle class?

Answer: yes, it would be cool.

But it's not clear to me that this is the only, or even the best path.  The grinding logic of game theory more or less rules out a viable new party in our system, so it would maybe drag the Democrats a bit leftward, but leave the game more or less untouched.

Let me do the other annoying philosopher thing and make a distinction.  The tendency seems to be to try to see OWS as a faction - one organized pressure group among others, with a particular agenda.  Let's distinguish that from a phenomenon - a happening that changes how things are done within the system (the term sucks, please propose better ones in the comments).

If the "we are the 99%" slogan is ever to be more than a slogan, OWS can't be a faction.  There's very little that 99% of USians agree on.  We may be largely in the same boat, and we may all agree that it's taking on water, but we simply do not agree on how to fix the leaks.  The 99% share neither a set of demands nor a common moral perspective.  And a common predicament is enough for Kristof's "primal scream" (in itself implying that people who are part of OWS are inarticulate, you know) but not enough for organized and directed action toward building a solution - on its own.

Could it be a phenomenon?  Maybe.  But that's harder.  In particular, ideology producers can't lead that.    First, I think practice will have to come before the ideology - if we really want to change how the game is played, rather than adjust the positions of the players, the important bit will be OWS getting people out into the streets, getting more people practice with tactics of direct democracy, etc.

Second, I think if an ideology comes out of OWS, that will be a sign of factionhood rather than phenomenonality (new words, whee!).  Call it a list of demands or a moral perspective, we shouldn't see the telos as agreement on anything, if we don't want a faction.

I don't have much immediate hope that OWS will be a tremendous shift in US, let alone global, politics  (a big part of that skepticism is that I think many USians underestimate how safe our current politics is and how dangerous more radical alternatives would be - police brutality is one thing, but I don't think the 99% are ready to be Libya).  But it could be part of more subtle but important changes if it gets people talking to each other, solving problems through direct democratic means, more consciously examining the relationship between their personal lives and political concerns (if you're worried about money in politics, remember that someone put each dollar in that corporate pocket - in the US, usually not at the barrel of a gun), etc.

And we ideology-producers can have a role to play in that, if we can bite our tongues about what the movement should be about and instead talk more about alternative ways to legitimate collective decisions.  If voting and complaining on the internet and waiting for some pundit or philosophy blogger to articulate an ideology they find attractive are the only alternatives many people see, we could help illuminate how something like OWS could be not just a briefly-spotlighted event but an example of the stuff that people can do every day.

Given my practice-first point, this is primarily something to be directed at people not out in the streets.  The people in the streets will learn about this stuff as they experience the joys and frustrations of trying to get consensus, sit through general assembly meetings, and so forth.

Then we can fight about whether open borders are a good idea in a way that might actually go somewhere interesting.

But anyway, I'm, like 3000 miles from the nearest OWS affiliate protest I know of, so take my advice by telling me I'm full of shit.


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  2. Nathan,

    I sent a you an email just now. But after emailing you, I just googled "blogger, missing posts" and saw that when blogger does maintenance, it sometimes deletes up to 30 hours worth of posts. Yours might have suffered this fate...good thing we are going to be moving into the new Word Press urk very soon.

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