Gandhi’s Wings: Occupy Wall Street and the Redistribution of Anxiety
by Rob Johnson
Occupy Wall Street is about anxiety, and the courage of young people to fly into conflict on Gandhi’s wings. This is the noble legacy of civil disobedience on display at Zuccotti Park. We are seeing that anxiety channeled by courage can transform a society.
What does anxiety look like? You can see this drama played out as the demonstrators meditate surrounded by police whose anxiety is palpable, perhaps because the police cannot figure out which side they should really be on. You see it and hear it and feel it from all of the media pundits who are trying to “figure out,” discredit, or dismiss OWS. You see it in the angry denunciations emanating from Wall Street financiers who beat their breasts and cling to the image of their legitimacy because they work so hard that they deserve their top 0.1% style mega incomes. (Doctors and tool and die makers work long and hard too, but their skill and hard work and education, often far beyond that of a financier, do not produce 7 and 8 figure incomes). You feel it in the desperate rhetoric of George Will, as he tries to discredit Elisabeth Warren’s assertion of the obvious, namely that the very successful are highly dependent on society and did not create their wealth and achievements in a vacuum. You sense it in the desperate smearing by David Brooks, whose efforts to behead this movement lie in planting the seeds that this protest is about anti Semitism rather than an unjust society.
The Wind Cries Change
From the corners of power, people who like to see themselves as adults act like spoiled children demanding that the citizens protesting create concrete plans and policies to alleviate the anxieties of pundits — the same ones who have been berating or ignoring the plight of far too many for far too long. They deny that right now the world looks a lot more like the urban desperation of David Simon’s brilliant The Wire than the lifestyles of the rich and famous on display in the newspapers. Media enablers of denial may insist that the protesters “become constructive.” But they have little leverage in making their scolding request given the destructive role they have played in masking our deteriorating reality. The savvy young protesters will likely sigh and laugh at these pathetic gestures from those outed for their complicity in making the mess our society has become.
Change, we are all finding, is very stressful. Even inevitable and healthy change.
We have reached a turning point. There is no more convincing people to play along in the “heads I win, tails you lose” game. We now plainly see that Atlas is strip mining our nation rather than carrying us on his shoulders of enterprise. The hero image of the business leader-provider is crumbling along with the core fabric of our society. Polls show that NYC citizens, Democrats and Republicans, and even Tea Party participants are all largely supportive of the protests. In Europe, many are ecstatic that America is finally objecting to the corruption at home that has been sliming the world for a long, long time. Etta James’s “At Last” is being sung in the salons of Berlin and Paris.
Our secular religion of individualist economics is disintegrating in the face of a nightmarish experience. As the brilliant BBC Documentary film series by Adam Curtis entitled “The Trap: What Happened to Our Idea of Freedom” illuminates, the every-man-for-himself concept of society and freedom creates a horrible void. The Horatio Alger myth has been refuted and shattered by reality. That old myth was attractive emotionally — promising to resolve anxiety by teaching that if you put your head down and worked hard you could control your own fate. But that lie was exposed when Wall Street blew itself up and millions lost their jobs, their homes, and their pensions through no fault of their own. The reckless financiers took us all down with them, and there was no way to insulate ourselves from their casino games and their manipulation of government. And the games just go on. The menace of high frequency trading is only the latest example of a system rigged against us. But we have begun to question a perverted notion of freedom, where the only thing we protect is the rights of the powerful to plunder the commons. We see that this “freedom” is so destructive that it is threatening the very integrity of our much-hallowed capital markets. What an irony! Compulsive greed cannot resist consuming its own monuments.
Nothing to Eat at the Establishment Café
Rather than serving as the trusted nerve center, the discipline, and the arbiters of monetary value, our leading financiers tear apart our productive base and blow themselves up. Then they yank the chain of their portfolio of “owned” Senators and Congressmen to bail themselves out. The elected officials, in turn, pay the media companies for election advertisements with their campaign war chest garnered from Wall Street, and we are all told that our constructive outlet as citizens is through the electoral process. Is that some kind of joke? Have you ever gone to a restaurant found nothing on the menu you wanted to order? Only those who pass the plutocratic primary ever make it on the ballot on election day. That is where we are as a nation. For the rest of us, watching this corrupt logic unfold gives new meaning to Ronald Reagan’s adage that government is the problem not the solution. The critiques of the Democratic left and the Republican right are strikingly similar. Our leadership and institutions are unresponsive to the concerns of the people.
But the young protesters at Zuccotti Park and encampments across the nation have simply gotten up from the table. They have walked out of the restaurant and are making their own meals now. That is what OWS is. Home cooking when everything is broken at the establishment café.
These young people have repudiated a system that has little to offer them. They are rising up against environmental degradation. They are challenging the devastating breakdown in financial regulation. They are saying “no thanks” to legislation protecting health care monopolies marketed as great reforms. They are condemning a toxic food industry that sabotages our health as the colors and chemicals tantalize and poison us. And they are refusing to swallow a military juggernaut that consumes lives and hundreds of billion dollars while we close schools. These young people have decided not to accept letting our society be crushed by an epidemic of mortgage overhangs and 30 percent credit card interest rates. They have opted not stand by as our elected representatives work with their campaign donors, pretending that the Wall Street bonuses are earned and banks are sound and business as usual can continue.
This inhuman economic and power logic impacts us all, and the protesters serve to heighten our awareness that the social contract has broken down. The truth has been revealed. That our large American-based multinational enterprises do not need healthy or well-educated Americans to profit. That CEOs do not want to pay taxes from their mega salaries when they can afford their own private security, private education and private transportation to escape the rubble that they have let the country become under their leadership. That all the while, the executives ransack their companies, aided and abetted by Wall Street collaborators who peddle off balance sheet schemes, complex derivatives, and stock buy backs, and then act as though it is a mystery that the pace of innovation is dwindling.
The Redistribution of Anxiety
As money poisons the veins of our political organism, as courts rule that money is speech and only millions in your pocket will give you a voice, is it any wonder that our jobless, debt-ensnared young people see this foul scene and understand that the greater danger to their future lies in not protesting the world we are putting on their shoulders? They have shrugged off Atlas. The protesters see something our leaders do not: Without protest, the future looks like a Brazilian favela for many. To alleviate the anxiety of that vision is to bear the anxiety of change. The protesters know they must face police brutality and the ridicule from those who drove us in the ditch. Resistance to change is organic and these brave and clever and peaceful young people are bearing their anxious birthright and redistributing the burden of anxiety to those who have left the nation in tatters.
When Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech on the immorality of the Vietnam war at New York’s Riverside Church, “A Time to Break the Silence,” he set off a rash of criticism from every establishment institution, black or white, in our entire nation. His legacy reminds us that anxiety is the sister of change. Anxiety is not always a mark of something wrong. It can be signal something that is overdue and needed. But can that anxiety of conflict be any more troubling than for our young people to believe they have to abide this discredited American political economic model indefinitely into the future? It is in the tilting balance of those anxieties that we can see now that “A Change is Gonna Come.” The road will be painful and perhaps bloody. But the journey is now irreversibly underway. Though they may never acknowledge it, even the one percent should be grateful for that. These peaceful protesters may ensure that anxiety does not erupt into a violence from which the wealthy and powerful themselves could not escape.
Instead, we are all gratefully riding on the intuitive wisdom of these young people, who, like Dr. King, chose to fly on the ghost of Gandhi’s wings.
Cross-posted from AlterNet.