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Down with (‘Occupy’) Materialism, Up with Diversity and Holism

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It’s barely secret that numerous local Occupy groups have encountered allegations of internal racism and sexism. When people who are marginalized or sidelined in the outside world feel that happening inside movement groups, they tend to get upset. I don’t really have trouble seeing why that makes sense, but a lot of people do, so I’d like to explain as briefly as possible one main reason for it.

Activists hopefully understand that racism, sexism/heterosexism, and ageism in movement circles are rooted in their institutionalized counterparts in the rest of society. But what keeps them from effectively preventing or even addressing these problems’ reemergence in and between activist groups? I believe the problem is that many leftist intellectuals insist oppressions such as sexism and racism are secondary to classism: the exploitation, alienation, and subjugation of labor. The Occupy movement is fertile ground for this ignorance, and I’m glad that it’s being challenged in many quarters.

Slavoj Žižek’s recent column really brought this home for me. In his commentary, pop-left darling Žižek falsely identifies the Occupy phenomenon as a monist movement about economics alone. But he’s not that far off, actually; he may be more right than wrong.

Žižek is positively giddy that, in his perception, the Left seems to be abandoning its attachment to struggles against racism and sexism, finally getting back to the real work of fighting capitalism.

In a kind of Hegelian triad*, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.

Yes, the was italicized in the original. I think he really believes all other problems are not just subordinate to and exacerbated by exploitative economic relations, but that “racism, sexism, and other struggles” are strictly rooted in capitalism.

He’s not alone. Many hardcore Marxists, and even reformed Marxists as most style themselves these days, have long lamented the Left’s foray into “identity politics”, that murky expanse in which the “special interests” of people of color, women, queers, and sometimes even young folks are taken into account, or even raised to the same level of concern as workers’ grievances against capital. Those who believe economics is the central (or only) battlefield of struggle usually admit some or all of these groups are oppressed, but they add caveats. They say (1) people of color, women, queers, etc. are primarily oppressed as workers; and (2) capitalism is the root cause of all oppression, so surmounting it will naturally lead to universal liberation.

What’s really going on here? How is it that someone with a supposedly sophisticated mind like Žižek’s can believe that capitalism is really the only problem (“the problem”)?

Here’s the deal: capitalism is “reemerging as the name of the problem” because the OWS phenomenon started with a massive influx of people who are new to radicalism and radical ideas. These folks first came together mainly around economic concerns, i.e., Wall Street vs Main Street, 1% vs. 99%, etc. Then shifty Marxian ideologues swooped in to coopt Occupy Wall Street, along with its various manifestations and energy. The truth is, they did a pretty poor job of this, I gather largely because OWS and its offshoots were steadfastly anti-authoritarian. Still, as a social phenomenon that lacks the sophistication developed through generations of struggle and learned analysis, Occupy is highly susceptible to oversimplified ideologies and sectarianism. Craven Marxist hacks apparently cannot help but try to take advantage of this, even through the pages of mainstream newspapers.

Make no mistake: materialist fixation (also known as “economism” or “class struggle reductionism”, as Žižek noted) in North American movements means in practice writing off or at least subordinating major concerns of pretty much everyone outside the white, male so-called “middle class” (not to mention groups like young people, among whom consciousness raising of oppression is barely active). This doesn’t seem to matter to folks like Žižek, because they can draw the privileged into their camp with promises that the resulting vanguard will take care of women and people of color (who are technically welcome, after all) “after the revolution” (guided by the remaining white men who stay in board).

There’s nothing like an immature movement to make people with immature analysis feel righteous. And there’s nothing like a lack of real organizing experience to let someone believe exclusive ideologies won’t have exclusive effects on participation. At last, there’s nothing like being a straight white male to enable one to decide that racism and sexism are secondary to classism.

Even if you buy into a theory that poses a primacy of economics over cultural, interpersonal, and other social dynamics, consider the implications of organizing around class issues to the general exclusion of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, and so forth. This is what some incarnations of the Occupy phenomenon have tended toward; women and people of color (too many links to list) especially are taking notice. And they’re not just charging that the Wall Street-oriented focus doesn’t include their particular interests; they’re noting that traditional race, sex, and age-based hierarchies are appearing within Occupy groups.

To truly transform society, a social movement will need to be radical (seek out and strike at the roots of problems), and its approach to the array of oppressions will need to be holistic. To attract the kind of diverse participation that makes a movement worth really standing behind, it will need to be at least pluralistic in this crucial regard. Sidelining or subordinating the major, legitimate concerns of people from marginalized communities and identities all but guarantees a movement dominated by people with backgrounds and privileges in tune with the top 20% that really owns and runs society, if not the 1%. And even though Occupy might be under the impression that the 99% are one big happy monolith, reality begs to differ. Failing to acknowledge this reality is essentially terminal for any radical social movement in the US, Canada, or Western Europe.

The good news is, there are elements inside most Occupy manifestations that I’ve heard of — including straight white males — who are willing to challenge failures of inclusiveness. There are folks effectively making the case for holistic or at least pluralistic approaches. Occupy may well be headed in the right direction, not least because its failure to empower an official leadership has not allowed the narrowly, materially focused among them to heed typical calls of “let’s just move on” from matters of race, gender, and so forth. That said, the failure to have accountable leadership has enabled unofficial hierarchies to develop, and this militates in the wrong direction, almost no matter their character.

If you’re participating in an Occupy general assembly or working group and feel like calls for inclusiveness and diverse objectives are bogging down the process, I urge you to rethink. There is power in movement and organizational diversity, and there is something to the idea that addressing oppressions other than hierarchy and classism is critical to the endeavor of radical social transformation.

* (I wouldn’t worry too much if the meaning of “Hegelian triad” doesn’t jump out at you; it’s pretty clear with references of this nature that you aren’t Žižek’s intended audience. There’s no use for that phrase except as a wink to those steeped in the teachings of the pre-Marxian philosopher Hegel. He’s just talking to the academics and bookworms; he doesn’t mind if the rest miss his message. If you haven’t read Hegel, maybe you don’t really matter to Žižek.)

Photo credit: Will Stevens/AP

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The Generational Wealth Gap

IOU in a piggy bank
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There’s been a social storm of intergenerational conflict on the horizon for a long time. Some say it’s merely hype meant to undermine Social Security and Medicare; others believe it’s the likely battlefield of future class conflict. I think it’s somewhere in the middle, but new research suggests the real-world rupture may be more severe than most of us have feared. That doesn’t mean we’re headed for a war between the ages; it just means we should pay attention and try to avert one.

study released last week by Pew suggests there’s been a drastic shift in the intergenerational wealth gap. Under an economic system like capitalism, which permits the accumulation of wealth, it’s only “natural” that older generations would accumulate greater net worth. But these figures point to a serious shift in that ages-old paradigm.

Pew doesn’t put it so bluntly, but basically what we’re looking at is a significant transfer of wealth from young to old in a way atypical of human history.

chart of generational net worth by age group, comparing 1984 to 2009.

Make sure you take a good, long look at those figures. Occupy Wall Street folks clamoring about how the so-called 1% are the only ones to have gained as a class in recent decades might want to take note: Baby Boomers and older folks did better as a class, too. And they seemingly did it on the backs of younger generations. They’re not alchemists, so their wealth came from somewhere, and it’s no coincidence that younger generations have less relative to what their elders had when they were young. Make no mistake, the super-rich capitalist class did way better than the “elderly” class has done over these same years. But these findings are still alarming.

Pew produced few hard figures detailing what’s behind the shift. I suspect much if not most change in the gap can be accounted for by debt; mainly student loans and relatively new mortgages. The benefit of this widened predation disproportionately went to the ultra-rich, of course, but pretty much anyone with 401k or pension fund investments was likely gaining off the trend of more young people getting into more debt. (I do not have data on hand to back this up, so I’d love to hear if I’m wrong.)

During the period in question, elites among Baby Boomers and their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, managed to undermine blue collar labor across North America, which forced more and more young people to seek college educations. These elites were meanwhile hurting their own age peers, but overall the impact was far greater on those who had little or no established wealth to speak of. They emerged with crippling debt that their degrees aren’t paying back so quickly, and now the white collar jobs and wages they were seeking are basically going the same way or aren’t as secure as promised. They bought homes to provide financial security, but a housing bubble stripped them of equity.

It has long been accepted that each generation is supposed to leave the following generation better off in every possible way; it’s supposed to be “the American way”. That trend has ended. Wealth has been shifted in the wrong direction, as has the burden.

In case the above isn’t staggering enough, look at this switcheroo.

poverty shifts from old to young over the decades

Now, the progressive line on this is that these figures are inaccurate/relatively meaningless and being spun as a case against Social Security and Medicare. (Actually, I haven’t seen much addressing the poverty factor illustrated above, but I’m talking about the more widely publicized Pew findings about net worth and income.)

Well, I’m certainly not trying to start an “intergenerational war” (talk about overhyping; folks, nobody said leftists don’t know how to use alarming language), and I’m certainly not against Social Security or Medicare, and I don’t fall for the bullshit conservative arguments against them. But that doesn’t mean these findings are not significant and illustrative of a real social problem.

My point in reporting and analyzing these figures is not to engender intergenerational animosity. I certainly don’t think this was a plot by the older generations. If anything, it represents the results of a values split that probably started during the early postwar era, when commercialism and an erosion of interpersonal class solidarity redefined what Americans care about. I’m not saying my generation has been or will be any different in this regard, which is to show a severe disregard for those coming up behind us.

I don’t even think older folks are aware of this apparent shift. More research needs to be done on it. But if it is as real as it seems (and as frankly logic dictates it would be), then it’s something that needs to be addressed along with pressing the 1%. Those in the more politically influential generations need to reverse the shift by investing accumulated wealth in younger generations. There doesn’t need to be a war; once the misplaced burden is identified, redistributing it fairly would be a way to alleviate any bubbling resentment.

photo by: Images_of_Money
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