Are We our Institutions? Reform, Revolution and Transformation – Thoughts on the Nature of Occupy

Written on:February 15, 2012
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The following article was written by Josh Mitchell, the newest member of the RevolutionTruth team.  Josh is  an avid reader of politics and history and he seeks to change the world for the better by examining and asking the hard questions that we all need to be asking.

Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name” – William Morris

Looking back on the history of social movements, a clear picture emerges: not all of the movements calling for dramatic change end up creating drastically different structures and institutions than the ones they’ve attempted to leave behind. So how does one measure the success of social movements and the structures they create? Is there a way to calculate whether a movement will simply provide a variation of the already existing modes of thought and societal construct?  Political philosophers have dealt with this issue for some time. We should not only be discussing reform versus revolution, but also how to determine what “revolution” and “reform” mean. How would we even define a revolutionary change as opposed to reform?  Alain Badiou says “A truth is solely constituted by rupturing with the order which supports it, never as an affect of that order.”  Badiou called this rupture the “event”. Large protest movements of the past not only resulted in minor reforms rather than  radical change in the overall social structure, but in many cases the reforms that came about led to strengthening and keeping the social structure in tact.  Recent and current social movements share words such as “freedom”,  “democracy” and “individualism”, and the beliefs and ideas we hold about these concepts help make up the basic ideological construct of society.  In light of Badiou’s claim that “truth” entails a rupture from a previous order, it is imperative to question all the facets of our current ideological framework undergirding modern society.  It is these ideas that we really should be examining; we should be attempting to pierce beyond the comfortable dogmas and beyond reflexive complacency of modern social movements when it comes to radical thought.

Right now for good or ill the Occupy movement is adapting many of the old liberal ideological political positions, and so instead of questioning the whole social construct, they are simply adapting a more radical liberal approach than before.  Instead of thoroughly examining and questioning the current social structure the Occupy movement must not make the mistake of becoming simply more radical democrats or a radical wing of the democrats.  If Badiou is correct, the Occupy movement needs to rupture from the whole liberal-conservative construct altogether.  One cannot know for certain whether one’s ideas or programs are enough of a rupture from the status-quo but what is important is to think and study at this juncture in today’s society.   So what is to be done today?  Today the most important thing shouldn’t be simply marching with slogans and sound bites.  Today more than ever we need a mass of people who know how to see and can see through the faulty logic in the whole liberal-conservative construct.  To do this requires studying, reading, examining, asking questions and asking others around you in your community. The issues need to be discussed differently. One can’t fully grasp the thing they are up against if they cannot climb outside of their own constructs to examine it from above; for, immersed in our ideologies; we may not even the right questions to ask.  The point of learning as it pertains to the Occupy movement, is to not only find the right answers but more importantly to be able ask the right questions.  If we don’t fully know what questions to ask then we risk minor reforms that deny us a rupture from the existing social reality we so wish to change.   We shouldn’t settle for the old standard notions of things such as “freedom”.  Right now we need to be asking the more fundamental questions such as, “what is freedom in a postmodern, globalized and profoundly interconnected world?”  We need to fully grasp what freedom means in today’s society and how we will most likely have to change our definitions of freedom.   It is questions like these that can help bring us to deeper, more fundamental truths

Right now the world is erupting in protests for various reasons but it is mainly the economic fall-out that has led to higher prices, fewer jobs and a general change for the worse for most people.  History shows that whenever there is an abrupt change in the economic system many cultures tend to cling to what they are familiar with and, rather than rupture from current constructs, instead sometimes radicalize the familiar: we have seen Conservatives engage in this in the tea party movement.

To ready the ground for a rupture from the past means to place all social beliefs on the table for question no matter how sacrosanct they at first appear.   We need to ask “what is democracy”,  “what is freedom”,  “what is capitalism” – and what does, and does not work, about our systems?  These three constructs form a fundamental foundation that underlies an ideology that has permeated much of the globe (at least in Western cultures). So I will briefly go through some of the major beliefs that make up our current ideological framework.  What can we say, in brief, about each of these constructs?

Democracy: We are told that democracy is synonymous with “freedom”. We are told that democracy means the people have a say in who rules them.  But history has showed us that a democracy is not a guarantor of a free society.  Democracies have always been based on wars of conquest at some time or another.  Democracies have existed side by side with slave ownership and the oppression of various classes and groups within “democratic” societies.  Democracies in and of themselves have never been synonymous with freedom.

Freedom: freedom is often a very vague term but conservatives and liberals use it alike with the same unquestioning devotion.   This leads to another barrier in creating new concepts and new definitions.  We are inundated with trite phrases and cliché’s.  The glibness with which the word “freedom” is bandied about in election cycles should be enough to push us to begin to question ourselves and what it is we mean. Freedom in the US today is essentially equated with the freedom to enjoy  hyper-individualism, to triumphantly claim the individual along with his desires to be the ultimate expression of what it means to be “free.” freedom.  Even the idea of individualism, which is relatively very new in human history, has not made human beings more “free”. Notions of freedom rooted in “individualism” have actually made humans more vulnerable to control and manipulation.  We  have terms like “free choice” or “free market” that are just as vague.   When one looks at the philosophical notion of “choice” and how “free” it is claimed to be, one realizes that a “free choice” isn’t exactly as it may seem. This puts into question the whole notion of democracy in that it is based on people choosing people to lead.

Capitalism: Capitalism, as a concept, is undergoing scrutiny on a mass scale. It is painfully obvious that capitalism does not to lead to “freedom” and many rightfully question whether or not capitalism is compatible with democracy.  Looking at capitalism logically, its claims do not necessarily match reality.  Let us look at what is termed “competition” for example:  We are told that capitalism produces competition then the reality is that competition reduces the amount of people participating in the competition.  The obvious question is, if capitalism is about competition and competition is about reducing the amount of competitors then even in describing capitalism shows it to be a walking contradiction.  Not to mention the many  economic disasters that have resulted in billions of people living in poverty and millions dead from wars, which many see to be  a result of capitalist expansion.

Earlier I mentioned “individualism” and “free choice”.  Our current social and economic ideological structure is based on the belief that individuals all acting out of self-interest will somehow create equilibrium of sorts.  Modern day capitalism is about promoting individuals to purchase products and satisfy their desires that commercials convince them they need.  At best an economic system based on the structure of individualism will lead to many ups and downs and never stabilize or achieve any kind of equilibrium.  This should not only lead us to question the validity of capitalism but also the validity of the current notion of “individualism”.

All of the ideas that together make up our ideological construct in modern society are more intertwined when one delves deeper into what underlies those constructs.  It is ideas like these that make up our current ideological framework, and these need to be questioned. Likewise it is important to realize that liberalism and conservatism aren’t two opposing poles but should be viewed topologically as a whole, as two aspects of the same social structure.  Occupy and Arab Spring may be giving us a chance to fundamentally question and change our constructs. In the West, we must not go back to two broken sides of the same coin.  The deep problems we face demand more of us.

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