The “bunch of hippies,” ignorance and hubris
Of the multitude of comments made on the topic of the Occupy movement, I find the reference “a bunch of hippies” the most irritating. Such a response strikes me both as a form of ignorance to the obvious, and hubris, and here is why.
To say that Occupy is just “a bunch of hippies” in a derogatory way, is to downplay its accomplishments (that are there, even if you disike the movement). Regardless of how it ends, it has done a lot so far – which can objectively measured in media attention despite the initial policy of non-coverage by many mainstream media, multiplication in all major American cities and well beyond the country, and the number of arrests as well as the police brutality to what was a genuinely non-violent action (as a former activist, I strongly believe that repression is a good indicator of success of a protest, especially in a declarative liberal environment such as the US). Ultimately, it is going to affect a lot of the election debates in the US and the local elections in the most affected cities (NYC, Oakland, Portland and so on). Moreover, mocking Occupy for being a “bunch of hippies” mirrors lack of unawareness of the broader historic context to which it belongs. In history books of the future, regardless of the final outcome, Occupy will be mentioned at least in two important lessons on the developments of the twenty-first century world history: a) “People’s struggle for democratization” and b) “The Global Crisis of 2008 and its aftermath” (or “Neoliberal Capitalism and its aftermath”).
It might be a harsh truth for many, but even developed societies suffer from the same deficiencies that can lead to uprisings as the developing ones do. It might be even harsher to realize that the prospects of the US might not be that much different, from the Arab countries affected by the wave of revolt [Mandatory: Stiglitz months before Occupy]. In this sense, the Occupy-optimists might as well frame the movement as another sequel of poorly organized yet tenacious post-ideological revolts (hence no “real” or short-term demands). Such were events in Northern Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, with the exception of the military resistance backed by NATO in Lybia), and it vaguely resembles the color revolutions, and more so other upheavals in Eastern Europe, where, however (as in Iran 2009) events were elections related, yet share the same ethos as the rest of them.
While their targets vary across cases, what is common for these movements is that people protest against corruption (in its broadest meaning) and the inequality of distribution of material and/or other resources. Moreover, in all of these cases, a precondition for the uprising was that the protesters felt powerless to the extent that public demonstration became their last resort and a desperation attempt to channelize frustration. Their success has been generally limited, and the biggest gains were symbolical (such as permanent or temporary removal of autocracy, instigating changes, yet with questionably sustainable and tangible follow-up).
In the case of Occupy, indebted students and disillusioned urbanites got to the streets in a desperate attempt to spell the end of the factual disparity between what the 1% and the vast majority (the 99%). They believe that banks and the finance industry are the most responsible for the exacerbation of the economy, a process out of which common people get hurt, and the financial pundits get richer (which is confirmed by numerous authorities). They are disillusioned with institutionalized democracy and the capacity and willingness of their official representatives to act upon this problem, as American politics is highly dependent on the coalition with, or the support from (some would go to say even the approval of) Wall Street. As in most of the aforementioned cases, in the case of Occupy there was no one single central “Party,” “Association,” “Union” or any other major unitary entity to act as a core agency that mobilizes people), but it was the utilization of communication technology that got all these people who don’t personally know each other together – something that used to be impossible in the pre-Internet world.
More importantly, Occupy is inseparable from the broader aftermath of the global financial crisis, and that is the increased discontents with the personal and overall economic situation in most parts of the world. Yet, the dissatisfaction is a consequence of an ineffective redistributive model (or the lack thereof), that has much deeper roots than 2008, a model that in fact has contributed to the meltdown (since it perpetuates domestic debts).
In other words, the global crisis was/is only the catalyst of the decay of an already malfunctioning model, a disaster waiting to happen. Thus, the Occupy movement fits in the assumptions that growing disparities (a consequence of the crisis), and especially the growing visibility of disparities (the more significant consequence of the crisis) inevitably lead to contention and “revolutionary situation.” America has a high Gini coefficient (measuring inequality of distribution), that puts the country into the risky zone for social upheavals, on par with China (where inequalities are even more visible, a topic that I plan to address soon). Having in mind that many people have been preparing for anti-rich people action for ages, I would even say that Occupy, in its current non-violent form, is the least that can happen – it was only recently that the world was in shock by the London riots and for that matter, events across the whole of Europe, which were also a response to the same problems, which the crisis did not create, but only exacerbated and made more visible. Occupy is less radical, but more powerful sequel of, for instance, the Global Justice Movement and isolated outbursts of discontent around the globe that have seldom made the news (partially, because privately owned media exhibit a tendency of under-reporting such events). Yet, for many, it is a question of time when London or Athens or Rome or Madrid or Seattle 1999, or even 1848 style riots will become daily news everywhere, accompanied by Sao Paolo-like social reality (where rich people use helicopters to avoid not only the traffic but also the skyrocketing crime on the ground – crime perpetuated by nothing else but disparity, as Brazil tops the Gini coefficient ranks). Yet, knowing the gun culture in the United States, and the already demonstrated police brutality and repressive measures against Occupy, one might only imagine what will happen if the protests radicalize. In this sense, I would sarcastically agree when some of the “bunch of hippies” proponents argue that Occupy is not that serious issue – to paraphrase a friend, “maybe only terrorism is enough serious for them.”
Lots of the “bunch of hippies” response to Occupy stem from the premise that the protesters are attention-seeking spoiled little brats, who have nothing better to do in their free time. It is appalling how condescending such an attitude is. I see it as an exemplary manifestation of hubris.
What we usually see is the hubris of the successful (the self-made rich ones, the ones who have better prospects of getting to the top). This is an attitude, that through looking down on the protesters and blaming them (Herman Cain went to blame them for not trying enough to get a job), commits a (secondary) victimization, not only of the protesters, but also of the many who remain silent (especially the most deprived strata of American society) – many of whom, are already victims and pay the cost for the amounting wealth of the few (again, this is backed by numbers). If one adopts a less favorable position towards the Occupy movement than the author of these lines, the argument still prevails – at the end of the day, Occupy is a desperate attempt to convey a message that is pretty clear – we need a shift of our long-term priorities towards fairer re-distribution of wealth, authority and dignity. And while you can ignore, censor or arrest some (in this case, thousands) of the messengers, the chance is that there will be more and more messengers in the days to come.
However, the successful ones, and especially the 1% themselves are a highly controversial category – and to say they are only undeservingly at their position is an understatement. I, for one, would expect their hubris as many of them are high on self-righteousness. [Mandatory reading by George Monbiot]
I am more appalled when the “bunch of hippies” argument is used by someone not as affluent.
And nothing more ironic than a struggling person who cannot repay their mortgage or cannot pay for medical treatment or cannot pay for their children’s education cursing “Look at that bunch of anti-American hippies. Everyone knows we need less taxes and smaller government. They should get a job and cut this communist bullshit.” It is the myth of the undefiable free market American style capitalism that leads to the fallacy/groupthink that evoking class division discussion is wrong (or is a “hippie”). Comparing America to Egypt? Say what?
In fact, one can see the usage of the “hippies” argument by itself, even outside the context of Occupy, as a normal, every day thing (as if a “hippie” is a more benign version of “communist” – in the very McCartian rhetorics). The bashing of “hippies” has in fact been a trait of American public debate ever since the emergence of the hippie movement itself, while the meaning of the term has been broadened to include much of the individuals whose political attitudes are informed by external, universal, supernational values – all of which contradict or simply transcend the notion of “national interest.” For example, advocating for the universal value of peace, the trademark hippie ideal, in times of war is seen as an act of treason (when it is not condescendingly seen as naivety) – and this is case not just in America, but everywhere else. In other words, the “hippies” are the American version of what every nationalist discourse targets as its fierce enemy, at the same time needing it for its own reproduction – the “traitors” of the nation, who create disunity and harm the country’s image abroad. They are seen as non-members of the community who are either not conforming enough or have voluntarily opted out and eventually joined the enemy lines. Therefore, they are not entitled to represent no one but themselves, not to say the 99%, and what they say is not to be taken seriously. Hence “the bunch of hippies” is to a certain extent manifestation of nationalism-inspired hubris, a product of heavily ideologized education system and public debate.
Additionally, when it comes to the message of the hippies in the case of Occupy – it happens to run even more so against American national mythology. While protesting against war might somehow be understood and excused, protesting against Wall Street cannot be forgiven by any means. Capitalism (especially its Wall Street variant) and free market are to many Americans part of their national self-identification (especially the generations socialized during the Cold War). Wall Street itself is a national symbol of America and its prowess. The (pseudo) free market-as-a-national-interest discourse is also intertwined with the idea of American modernity and successfulness of the US as a historical exception, and as a nation that is to lead the world towards progress. The critical education and the public debate on economics is extremely narrow and critiques of the existing model are marginalized [Mandatory: as part of the Occupy movement, Harvard students stepped outside of the classroom protesting the (mono)ideological bias of their economics class]. No alternatives are considered, even at times of crisis. One might write lengthy on the nature of this relationship as well as the interplay between nationalism, financial and political power/interest of the elite and the public discourse on economy, but for the sake of being concise I would not engage in such an undertaking right now – though I argue that we should consider the possibility that the interest of the 1% (the fortification and the spread of the economic model in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer) has been embedded into the national doctrine – on the expense of precisely those Americans who, to borrow a term from Marx, constitute the lumpenproletariat. Yet, many of those who are not CEOs, manage to think of the world like ones (the example above).
The bottom line is that, for many Americans, to accept that what Occupy says makes sense is to give up much of the pride derived from being American, and the hubris that comes with it. It is to accept that there is a hard road ahead, which will begin by reconsidering how Americans (and therefore the rest of the world) will achieve our global long-term goal, and that is simply to achieve well-being for as much as people possible, as soon as possible. That itself is a hard thing to swallow. Yet, for now, Americans, and for that matter everyone else should thank the Occupy movement for shifting the public debate towards the interest of 99% themselves (again, statistically they exist, even if they are not represented correctly by the Occupy movement). It is also in the interest of the super-rich, as well America, since their security largely depends on patching up the class cleavage.