Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#Occupy - Capitalism, Marketing and The Onion

Nation Waiting for Protesters to Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them

With a single headline, the Onion defined and undercut 99 percent of the media's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. That's not unusual - in the modern era, the Onion's satirical bent lets it tell the truth more effectively than most major news organizations which are constrained by the limits of covering 'both sides' of a story and regurgitating massive waves of corporate and political propaganda. By bending the actual truth, the Onion can cut through the bullshit.

It's not that there aren't smart, well-reasoned, intelligent and incisive pieces out there about the Occupy movement - they can be found anywhere from The New York Times to the Awl to the Occupy Boston Globe and other impromptu publications covered by David Carr in the Times. But a couple of regular drumbeats emerge from the mass media. Where are the demands, they ask. Where is the concrete political platform? Who will you vote for? Whose side are you on?

The Onion didn't answer those questions, but it did explain why they're being asked.

Why such urgency, however? Why is it so important that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, Occupy DC, Occupy Chicago and the rest of the 120+ encampments around the nation produce policy proposals?

Right now, the Occupy movement doesn't fit into established or institutional narratives in many ways. Its leaderlessness is one reason . Not only is it difficult to pin a certain person - a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mao, a Sarah Palin - to its head, it's also just practically difficult for a reporter. If everyone's voice is equally weighted than, logically, a good reporter has to talk to everyone to get the full story - which isn't possible even for an extended feature, let alone a deadline for the City desk or the 10:00 p.m. news.

More importantly, the movement doesn't fit into the structure of capitalism. That seems like a broad statement, so let's nail it down piece by piece. Though the spread of the movement has lead to a rapidly diversifying set of priorities, demands and agendas, from raising capital gains taxes to decolonizing the United States, it retains a few core principles everywhere: Occupy Wall Street (i.e. the financial sector's) turf. Return wealth, land, prosperity and hope to the "99 percent majority." Give everyone a chance.

Capitalism, at its, heart, is about the accumulation of capital. Karl Marx very effectively defined it on its own terms in Das Kapital: "M–C–M'[buying in order to sell dearer] is the general formula of capital as it appears prima facie within the sphere of circulation."

That is to say, the capitalist advances money (M) to purchase a commodity (C, which can be a physical good, a service, labor...anything) in order to sell it again for more money (M'). You can even be more efficient, like a banker or a financier, and employ the nigh-magical power of interest: M-M'. Capital increasing itself.

Only the most lunatic capitalist would attempt to deny this simple truth. Where, then, is the contradiction with the Occupy movement?

First, off, there's no reason for the ardent capitalist to return anything to the 99 percent, other than to keep them from storming his property. That's M'-M - why would any capitalist reduce his capital? It makes no sense.

The immediate objection might be that, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, "We are all capitalists now." But we aren't, really. Nearly everyone you meet in life is working to make a living, which means exchanging labor (a commodity) for money (capital) in order to buy various other commodities (shelter, food, iPods, stuff from Anthropologie). We might invest in some small way or have a 401(k) or a pension plan somewhere, but that largely exists so that we can just buy more commodities once we are no longer willing or able to work.

In addition, a pretty fair proportion of the people at Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere either have no capital, by virtue of being unemployed and/or homeless, or have negative capital thanks to massive student debt, mortgages and medical bills.

That raises the second point - the Occupy movement generally wants to reform, reduce or forgive the modern structure of debt. Finance is in large part built on debt, and it consumes an ever-larger proportion of both the national and the global economy. Can anyone actually imagine an administration - any administration - or a Congress telling the banks that all mortgage or student or credit card debt is forgiven? The idea is outlandish - which is exactly why they could dismiss the Occupy movement if it rallied around it as a single concept.

This doesn't mean the Occupations are necessarily hostile to markets, a concept all to often conflated with capitalism. Markets predate capitalism by a huge margin, exist independently of it in the modern world and will probably outlast its collapse (assuming we aren't dragged into a nuclear hellfire). Though donations and freely exchanged skills and labor maintain most of the Occupations' needs at the moment, every member is necessarily a participant in and beneficiary of various markets, from food to cell phone service.

The contradiction is really between the demands of the Occupations - redistribute, forgive, make things fair - and the underlying logic of capitalism which is simply to accumulate. The capitalist will reply that the rising tide lifts all boats and that even as the 1 percent accumulate vast riches, the poor and middle-class have as well. That line might have worked more effectively before 2008, but the global economic crisis since then belies the truth.

As long as the Occupy movement emphasizes its processes, its democracy, its physical existence in space, it defies demands to take up a defined slot in the hierarchy of capitalism. There are plenty of participants who don't identify this way - many calling for iterative reform, increased taxes, even just a job. I've met people at Occupy Boston who've said they support capitalism.

Capitalism, however, doesn't support them. And it's just waiting for a chance to pigeonhole them so it can proceed to ignore them.

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