December 1, 2011

OWS and the Usefulness of Acceptable Resistance

Much of what I've been reading about the crackdowns on the Occupy Wall Street movement in various cities has reminded me of what might be called "acceptable resistance."

As Americans, we know that freedom of speech is our birthright, and that along with freedom of speech goes freedom of assembly. That's what the Constitution of the United States tells us.

The Constitution of the Kingdom of Technique, if there was one, would include a significant addition to those guaranteed freedoms. It would read something like this:

"All citizens absolutely have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly – as long as in the process of exercising those rights nobody interferes with the continued operation of the Machine."

That addendum has been a subtext in the statements offered by mayors and other authority figures to explain why they could no longer tolerate the continued presence of OWS protesters in their midst. All fit a consistent pattern: Yes, we honor the protesters' right to freedom of speech and assembly, but public safety must be protected.    

With few exceptions, I've seen very little evidence that any genuine threat to public safety exists. What does exist is a threat to business as usual.

The true nature of the problem comes through clearly in these lines from the New York Times' report on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's rationale for clearing Zuccotti Park:

Facing mounting criticism from the city’s tabloids and from some business interests for his tolerance of an encampment they found increasingly noxious, [the Mayor] spoke increasingly of the need to balance free speech with public safety.

The mayor and his advisers had grown fed up with their inability to police the park, with complaints about noise, disruptions to businesses and odors, and with a leaderless movement that they just could not figure out how to deal with.

Sensitive to charges that he was violating the protesters' right of free speech, Bloomberg allowed them to return to Zuccotti Park as long as they didn't sleep there. These paragraphs from the Times' story on the park's re-opening are equally telling:

The police opened the gates to Zuccotti Park just after darkness fell and let in a single-file line of people as a crowd surrounded the park. Some chanted “Let us in. Let us in.”

“You have to walk through a gantlet of officers,” said Andy Nicholson, 54, of Manhattan, who entered the park, stopped and was told by the police to move along. “It’s all about control,” he said.

Andy Nicholson had it exactly right. It is all about control.

There was a perceptive blog post on all this last Sunday from Langdon Winner, a professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the author of two seminal books on the philosophy of technology, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Winner wrote that, beyond a few colds, he'd seen no threats to public health at the OWS sites he'd visited, and he asked an incisive question:

If public health and safety have somehow become America's most urgent problem right now, why are budgets for Medicaid, public health services and local law enforcement being slashed in our towns and cities?

Winner pointed out the remarkable hypocrisy of Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who proclaimed his support for the goals of the protestors occupying City Hall Park even as he was in the process of evicting them. The movement is "at a crossroads," the Mayor said, and needs to find ways of constructively spreading its message other than occupying "a particular patch of earth."

Villaraigosa's lecture ignored the fact that throughout history revolts have coalesced – materialized, literally – around particular patches of earth. As Winner noted in a newspaper interview, the protests of Arab Spring as well as Occupy Wall Street have demonstrated that the tools of cyberspace – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – became truly powerful only when used in combination with massive numbers of human beings assembled together in the flesh. Embodiment matters.

Jacques Ellul had a lot to say on the subject of acceptable resistance. I'm a bit sheepish about introducing Ellul into yet another post here, having already mentioned him in several previous essays. I don't want to give the impression that Ellul is the focus of this blog, or of the book this blog is intended to promote, Dear Ted. He isn't. Nonetheless Ellul is the philosopher of technology who's influenced my thinking more than any other, and it's hard to resist noting the degree to which his insights are consistently borne out by current events.

Ellul argued that a certain amount of rebellion is not only tolerable in the technological society but necessary, simply because the strain of living up to the demands of the machine creates pressures that must find some form of release. Outbreaks of acceptable resistance serve that purpose. Movements come and go; technique remains.

An especially popular form of acceptable resistance is our collective obeisance to the iconography of the Rebel. The Rebel is the daring anti-hero who appears and reappears in a variety of guises in every instantiation of popular culture, the guy or gal who has the guts to go against the tide and win, or at least to go down in a blaze of glory. In our daily lives we encounter plenty of Rebel wannabes who seem to pride themselves on refusing to abide by the rules of The Man. This is a stance that, as Ellul noted, hardly threatens the status quo, given that it's less genuine rebellion than an image of rebellion, a fashion statement easily acquired through the purchase of whatever products the Rebel brand happens to have certified at any given moment. “I am somehow unable to believe in the revolutionary value of an act that makes the cash register jingle so merrily," Ellul said.

The nervousness of the authorities in regard to OWS is understandable in that the movement seems to be something closer to meaningful rebellion. This is true especially because it's a rebellion aimed at those jingling cash registers, or, more accurately, at the corporate behemoths behind those jingling cash registers.

OWS has it exactly right, I think, in pointing its collective finger at the institutions of Wall Street for their sins of commission and at the institutions of government for their sins of omission – that is, for their complicity and acquiescence. Ellul noted long ago (the quotes here are all from The Technological Society, written in 1954) that the state was in the process of being co-opted to serve the needs of technique. Once that co-optation is achieved, values the institutions of government ostensibly exist to defend – public safety, for example – become "a mere matter of show," a "rationalizing mechanism" through which actions taken to preserve the operation of the machine can be explained and excused.

"The conclusion seems unavoidable," Ellul said, "that this is the road upon which our democracies have already entered.”

©Doug Hill, 2012

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