I’ve been involved in a conversation with Juniper Shoemaker these past few days about the Occupy Wall Street movement, the worry that the middle class will eventually co-opt it, and that the concerns of the less-privileged will be subsumed into returning the middle class to the status quo. It’s also been a conversation largely about language, and it’s covered a good deal of territory that we’ve already been over. At the same time, I think the conversation exposes a lot of nuance that we haven’t discussed, so it’s worth continuing in a new post. I’m answering this comment primarily, but there are other bits of the conversation in the “Clue this dude in” post and it touches on something martha said as well.
There was a good deal of other stuff in Juniper’s last comment, the comment from which most of this post sprang fully-formed from my mind. But I start my response to what she said here:
I loathe the idea of denigrating people because they’re poor and Southern. I have sympathy for most individuals who are poor and struggling to survive as a result.
I do too. There’s no reason to denigrate someone for something over which they have no control, especially not if the one thing you CAN control, is within your own power to ameliorate. It’s a lot of why I was happy to get on board with the Donors Choose project this year (LAST DAY TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS CHALLENGE BY THE WAY). And it’s also why I love Kiva so damned much, since you can give loans over and over and over again, helping a lot of people bootstrap themselves out of poverty. Especially when it comes to education — that’s the first place I target any time I want to make sure my (or others’) dollars have maximum impact. The right knows education is their silver bullet, and that’s why they fight to keep people dumb and complacent. It’s probably also a component in the overt racism and sexism you encounter so damned frequently.
I’d prefer that we have a system of government with far fewer inequalities, one with far fewer corporate hooks where people with money set the agenda to siphon more money upward. I’d prefer, therefore, an informed electorate to build this system of government, probably out of the same system we have now but with better and less corruptible politicians whose positions better represent both reality and their constituents. And I know you can’t get this without teaching people about the wonders of this universe. The more you get kids interested in science, the less likely they are to remain uneducated, and therefore poor, the rest of their lives. Now, granted, there are a lot of people today who are getting higher education and don’t get jobs. But that’s a different fight. The one that OWS is fighting. Educating kids in poor areas helps alleviate the worst suffering, but at the same time leaves them buried in debt when it comes to secondary education with the system we’ve got now (and Canada’s system is hardly different in that respect).
Education is one of the biggest reasons the civil rights movement succeeded, and I’m absolutely certain that it’s a key component to fixing this current mess. An educated electorate is less prone to voting against their own interests.
Similarly, despite my internal conflict over the difficult question of just or optimal wealth distribution, I won’t hypocritically disparage middle-class individuals merely for belonging to the middle-class. I also wish that the media would concentrate on the Occupy Wall Street activists who want those who made fortunes from bad financial instruments prosecuted not because they’re rich but because they are no better than individuals from lower classes who made money by robbing banks and breaking into houses. That’s where I’m coming from.
No, I don’t think anyone’s disparaging the middle class just for being middle class. I think the crux of the problem here, what Greg is upset about and what Stephanie is worried will happen, is that the middle class — traditionally comfortable and happy with working and producing and owning their little plot of land — is eroding thanks to the predatory practices of the confluence of government and big business. The underclasses, the lower and lower-middle classes, the hippies, the freaks, the anarchists, were all affected first and all started fighting this new corporatocracy, this capitalist oligarchy, long before the middle class did.
The right-wing, trying to preserve this oligarchy, has smeared these underclasses as being underclasses. The middle class, having not fought any of these imbalances before, is only getting involved now that it’s starting to directly affect them via foreclosures, job loss, bankruptcy after a health issue, etc. And they’re being taken seriously, even though the underlying issues were taken up by the freaks, the anarchists, the Cassandras of society long prior.
There are middle-class hippies, middle-class anarchists. Look at Greg, a university professor who exudes middle-class lifestyle. You have to have a certain amount of privilege to rise to the station that he has — you don’t just get there by sheer merit, knowing how this society actually works. This is not a disparagement of him by any stretch, just an acknowledgement that Greg’s privileged. And look at me, who despite working my ass off for far less than I deserve, can only afford a tiny house in a trailer park and a crappy car that probably costs more to keep on the road than I’ve paid on its lien. And that’s with Jodi working full-time (save three months of winter — which she has to save up for, to pay her student loans). But I have a house! And a car! And a smart phone! And internet connectivity! And time enough to prattle on the intertubes. That’s something, right? That’s some amount of privilege. And it’s more than some of the first protesters had.
I absolutely agree that there’s a certain class of people that are primarily responsible for our current mess, predating on the lower and lower-middle classes in order to make absurd amounts of money off their suffering. And I absolutely agree that they should be made to pay. I just don’t want the Occupy movement to peter out before it hits that goal.
But I think you are ignoring the question of whether or not a given person has the luxury of refusing to reject stereotypes in her effort to be taken seriously by people with more political power. I feel as if people with more political power than I have take me more seriously than they would if I were a black stereotype. I sympathize with what this protester is trying to do with her sign.
This sign and its rejection of the stereotypes is giving power to the stereotypes. Imagine a person (this is going to be a stretch and will probably get slapped down for being impolitic and a bad analogy so I apologize in advance) in a hypothetical civil rights march today, who does not show any outward signs of being black, who also carries a sign saying “NOT a watermelon-eater, NOT a fried-chicken-eater, NOT 3/5ths of a person, NOT lower IQ, just a mom looking for a better world for her kids”. That’s the problem the self-described hippies and freaks are seeing here — though again, none of the slurs are comparable, as I said in my parenthetical. (And what’s wrong with eating fried chicken anyway?) Here’s a woman showing no signs of being in the outgroup, claiming support for the outgroup, but using the slurs the same way as the slur-slingers were. This activity, though it’s supportive of the outgroup, is ringing alarm bells in the members of the out-group.
The worry here is that the people who weren’t interested in fighting when it was affecting the underclasses will also bow out of the fight once a little fairness is achieved for them. They won’t keep fighting til the underclasses get lifted up into the middle class. The worry is that once people are comfortable enough to return to a workaday existence with a 9-to-5 job, two point three kids, and So You Think You Can Dance on the tube, all those disadvantaged people are going to be left out in the cold again. And all because these comfortable people co-opted the movement as being about them, inadvertently (due to their privilege) saying that the hippies and the punks and the anarchists are less important in the fight and that, like with the sign lady, they’re really just there for their kids. Not everyone else’s kids, theirs.
I know, this is a cynical way of viewing things, even the parts you’ve already said you agree with. And I apologize for going over old territory, but it’s important in understanding why the three of us are reacting the way we are. I worry that if people like Greg and Stephanie and I don’t keep harping on it, that it’ll become the case with this protest as with every other one that it’ll hit critical mass when the middle class joins in, and wither and die when they’re sated.
This is a real grassroots movement the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Vietnam War protests. The Iraq protests didn’t gather enough steam. The Bush-era “free speech zones” kept a hell of a lot of protests from gathering any steam whatsoever. This one’s real, and it’s huge. And it’s mostly populated by hippies and freaks, and it’s time they got their due. It’s time the middle class gets expanded to include all these outcasts, and the rich get nibbled on a little bit. Because when there’s nothing left to eat but the rich, they’re just going to get dragged out of their ivory towers by the starving throngs of humanity.
I would first target the assholes who found such new and inventive ways (or found ways to rework old cons and schemes) to perpetuate the up-suck of money, this time via predatory tactics and bad financial instruments designed to bet on people failing. But then, after that, I would prefer that the safety nets that the right has so assiduously demonized and dismantled over the years get re-mantled, reestablished to protect members of our society from losing everything after a medical emergency or getting taken by some shyster with a business suit. I’d prefer that the regulations that have been destroyed, get reinstated, to prevent this kind of travesty from happening again in the future. I’m well aware that doing so would disproportionately disadvantage the already-very-advantaged — but I contend they’ll hardly feel it, no matter how loudly they complain. They would hardly feel it even when the underclasses completely collapse and the rich are the only ones with any money whatsoever.
When the US economy collapses, no country on the planet will be immune from its effects. Canada’s almost certainly first in line for economic shock. And whoever succeeds Obama is probably going to be forced to build a New New Deal if OWS doesn’t achieve any of its goals and in a hurry. We can stop it if we realize that the middle class isn’t the only one worth saving from suffering like the underclass — because the underclass has been suffering all along. And we won’t manage this if we scattershot the underclass every time we try to effect real change.
The middle class deserves a piece of this action (and I’m doing what I can in my meagre way), on the condition that they realize they are supporting the lower class primarily in this fight. Not the other way around.