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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Politicians, Activists, The Internet, and The Epistemological Tug of War Over The Masses




Over the last 6 months I've watched, read, and talked about the following few things: Occupy Wall Street, the US political system, and the internet. As I think back on the past months, I begin to look closer to make sense of what has been happening.

Over the past 6 months I have spent a majority of my time on the internet. During that time I was practically glued to social media sites and news sources, and I was pretty engaged on Facebook and Twitter with Occupy Wall Street. Since I was living an hour away from San Francisco and Oakland I wasn't able to participate directly with OWS and therefore found myself in a cyber relationship with it -- promoting, liking, and discussing most things Occupy Wall Street. Learning, and being active online felt better than doing anything else, like hanging out with people I knew. The idea of using the internet to discuss issues with people during an unprecedented time felt invigorating.

Despite it being an unprecedented time in regards to activism, and despite the attention the movement received by the public, people I knew just weren't getting into it. Looking back on the months I wonder if our issues were too academic, abstract, and foreign to the masses to resonate with them. Throughout my time spent with OWSSF and OWSOAK I heard and discussed OWS and its fundamental connection to the Arab Spring. While I am aware that our conditions are similar, I think our differences have been neglected by mainstream activist circles. Our main issues have been about justice, equality, co-operative living, etc., but the issues of the Arab Spring were about overthrowing dictators – which is a concrete issue that resonated with the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. I am aware that figuratively we have dictators AKA the 1%, and that we sell our labor and are pushed around and told what to do. But I believe that a fundamental mistake we made was associating ourselves with their experiences – average American's don't feel that they live under a dictatorship. I'm not saying the bourgeoisie and state don't matter, I am a strong advocate for class confrontation, and I'm not downplaying the significance of the state, I'm only stating that there has been a tendency to associate OWS with the Arab Spring which created a misconception about a global experience and which led us to neglect our differences and the concrete issues of average Americans.

But there are similarities in both the Arab Spring and OWS that are worth mentioning. For example, the economies from Tunisia to the US were hit and devastated by financial earthquakes that led to the decline of living conditions. In Saudi Arabia beachfront properties aren't being bought. But in Greece we saw and continue to see austerity measures and the privatization of public institutions. Even though similar aspects of our lives are affected, our experiences are different. For example, in the UK, the US, and France, students felt the reverberations of the stumbling economy. As a result, activists organized students to form massive protests. Thinking about the protests over cuts to education I can remember how many people were involved – a majority of them weren't activists – and when comparing it to OWS I can't help but attribute the non-activists' presence in the protests to the concrete reality of the issue.

Another similarity between The Arab Spring and OWS is the role of citizens who appear everywhere on the political spectrum. Both societies have citizens that defend the regime. For instance, recently in Syria there were protests against the Free Syrian Army, during the protests in Egypt supporters of the president rode patriotically into the crowds at Tahir Square on behalf of Mubarak, and the conservative Americans calling OWSers lazy, whinny, etc. on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. Conservatives are ubiquitous, but so is the entire left wing of the political spectrum. As I think about the number of conservative individuals around the world I feel baffled – how is it that we can live in a era where logic, reason, and liberal values are esteemed but play such a minor role in politics?

As winter came OWS began to lose its force while the US Republican primaries took over the front page of all US newspapers. The conversation had switched from national protests, global protests, and the 99/1%, to job creation, ending the war, and getting the country back on track to where we were prior to the economic downturn. Even on Facebook, I was more likely to see a comment or status update about the primaries than anything related to OWS.

Seeing the republican primaries in the headlines of the papers felt like a defeat. Especially when the youth of America, who are so active on social media sites, cling to Ron Paul and myopically buy into his libertarian rhetoric on individualism, liberty to own property, and the role of the free market.

Similarly the political pundits and junkies espouse the connection or relationship between the US and the rest of the globe. Contrary to OWSers, republicans and democrats focus on our nation and the masses position in the free market which further reinforces the idea that we are not connected to citizens in other countries. They successfully changed the national conversation from wealth inequality, nonexistent democracy, and an economic system that thrives on natural resources and consumption, to jobs, competitive advantage, the nation as a team, and have effectively united the 1% and the 99% together.

All this happens despite the events that have transpired over the past three years – banks going bankrupt, the burst of the housing bubble, more outsourcing, budget cuts, privatization, terribly low approval rating for congress, the budget deficit, extending the tax cuts, etc. Even if no one is buying it, politicians are able to dominate the conversation about politics. It's almost as if our house was partly burnt down, and despite its condition the fire department told us it was OK to move back in, and we did. Although we feel it isn't right, someone is saying “did you not hear them? They said it's fine we can move back in.” Our intuition tells us something's not right, but we go along with it because it's the only thing we know how to do. Therefore perhaps we need to appeal directly to the publics' interests.

But our society is fragile. Austerity measures, privatization of public institutions, and lost jobs are all evidence of this. New laws like the NDAA, and the crackdown on national protests are attempts to contain the epistemological tug of war on the masses. Just like the regimes in the middle east cracked down on national protests, the western world is fragile but plays it cool while increasing security. They hope that by not talking about it we'll ignore the situation. But every attempt to maintain the situation works in our favor. The only message politicians have is the one of “hope” that they will bring change – most salient with the youth in regards to Ron Paul who desperately hold on to the American Dream.

By occupying the internet we have found outlets – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube – to release our pent up frustration. The democratic experience of an online forum is far more stimulating and rewarding than sitting in a room of friends, family, or co-workers who dismiss or don't understand our critical comments. As our interests are hardly met by the majority of citizens, we seek communities online to find a voice, solidarity, and occupy our time. Our tendency to be conservative in regards to sharing our beliefs and feelings with in person relationships lead us to become addicted internet activists. Together we tug the masses toward our explanations, toward our views, toward our solution, via the internet. After years of moving society onto the internet, e.g. pawnshops turned into Craigslist, dating became online dating, businesses became E-commerce, etc., we should now export our behavior on the internet into society.

As both activists and politicians center their conversations around the economy, issues of race, sexuality, and gender are marginalized perhaps more than usual. As LGTBQ, people of color, and female and transgender folks are more likely to feel the adverse effects of the economy, race, sexuality, and gender get neglected and become issues to divide folks in order to gain momentum in the epistemological tug of war on the masses. In a time when the main issue on either side of the political spectrum is the economy, republicans and democrats pull in votes through issues of race, sexuality, and gender. For instance, the marriage debate gains or loses votes, contraceptive and abortion gain and lose votes, and issues of race gain and lose votes – all while distracting the masses from the conversation about economic inequality, private ownership of the means of production, and the nonexistent democracy. Their ability to divide us on these issues allow politicians to distract us from our common experiences and prevent us from focusing on the real other – (figuratively speaking) the 1%. The importance of uniting the public on these issues is critical to uniting us over the economy (in other words, it's not just the economy stupid!).

As the American Spring arrives I see it as a crucial moment for the discussion of social change. Rational discussion about academic, abstract topics alone will not work, and neither will the internet. I suggest we relate our issues to their issues, rely less on abstractions and more on concrete examples. I also suggest that we export the aspects of our digital relationships into our interpersonal relationships in order to reshape society. Let's bring democracy, stridency, and trolling to our friends, family, and the workplace in order to organize society more effectively.

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