The Protester

2011 was a year that will be remembered for its protests. Around the world, from New York to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, people were rebelling against oppressive regimes. The protests of the Arab spring took aim at their autocratic leaders, while in Europe, people took to the streets to protest against ‘austerity measures’ they claim are ruining their livelihoods. In New York and many other western cities, the ‘Occupy’ protesters took aim at ‘corporate greed’.

Occupy comes to Melbourne

Occupy comes to Melbourne

Time Magazine recognised the importance of these protests by naming its Person of the Year as ‘The Protester’, a move that is understandable: the protests were not the result of a few inspired individuals, but the result of collectives that formed organically and gathered in force through social media channels.

“It’s remarkable how much the protest vanguards share. Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated… All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change.” – Time Magazine, Dec. 24, 2011

The magazine naturally brings attention to the apparent similarities between members of the different protest groups. There is no doubt that many of the protesters were young or that they were members of the educated middle class. At the same time, this ignores some pretty significant differences. For example, the GDP per capita of the US is around $47,000, and in Egypt it is $6,500. Even if middle class Egyptians earn considerably more than the average, we can imagine that there is still a considerable disparity between the middle class in America and in Egypt. Can we really compare people that live in relative poverty and in oppressive circumstances with middle class Americans?

There is no doubt that the Occupy protests were significant and valuable in terms of opening people’s eyes to the systemic violence around them. At the same time, by bringing about awareness to one type of objective violence, we risk becoming complicit in another form – symbolic violence.

The Occupy protesters gathered around the slogan, “We are the 99%”, a reference to the fact that in the US, 99% of people control only 50% of the country’s wealth. The clever, concise slogan was meant to foster solidarity, unite people against the super-rich elite that controls world wealth. The source of this solidarity is victimhood: if we belong to the same group, it is because we are victims of people that use their power to keep us in poverty.

It is thus that we come to think of ourselves being in the same boat as those living in abject poverty around the world, such as the estimated one billion people living on a $1 a day. It could be argued that the slogan encourages us to think of those that are less fortunate than us or that we are protesting for their sake as well as our own, however, is this really the case? If the intention was to protest on the behalf of those that are unable to protest for themselves, why attempt to place ourselves in the same group? What is the point of saying, ‘we suffer too’? The answer is that this was never the intention of the Occupy protests. The movement began in the US and at first, it only addressed the disparity in wealth within the country. The focus, from the beginning, has not been on the suffering of those less fortunate, rather, this comparison is made only to intensify the argument on a world scale: it is far more powerful to think of the ‘whole world’ rallying against the super-rich than just the middle class of the developed world.

We can conclude that at best, the protesters think of the suffering of the group as a whole. Even if this is the case, is there not something appalling about middle class people speaking of their own suffering and the suffering of the third world in the same breath? Can we seriously look to those who are starving and living in constant danger and speak of defaulting on our mortgages or our investment portfolios and superannuation being decimated?

The deeper problem here is not so much the comparison between middle class suffering, and the suffering of the third world poor – the silent majority that does not and cannot take part in protests – the problem is rather the intimation, through such slogans, of a world united against corporate greed, the evil one percent, the super rich elite that keeps everyone else in poverty.

Is this really the problem? Is there really this class of people that use their wealth and power to oppress everyone else? Certainly there are influential people in the world that wield incredible power, but even if they wish to oppress us, could they do so without our complicity? Power requires a machine through which it can maintain itself, and the operation of this machine requires a great many people, far more than those we could call the super rich: it requires the complicity, the involvement, of those who are merely rich (relative to the world average), in other words, the middle classes, many of which attend protests and count themselves among the 99%.

The phrase ‘corporate greed’ is interesting: what is corporate greed? It is the insatiable appetite for profits, for ever-increasing profits, to cut costs at the expense of ethical integrity, employing people for slavish rates of pay, etc. But what drives this system? Why must profits go up and costs be kept low? If there is a need to ‘supply’ in this way, is there not demand that drives it? Those that wish to blame the few might say that, yes, but corporations don’t need to continue lowering costs, they could make more ethical decisions even if it means charging more for their products. However, this is an impossible idealism: Companies that don’t do everything to cut costs these days get annihilated by competitors who do and are able to drive down prices and squeeze them out of the market. There are companies out there that could be singled out as singularly unscrupulous, but when we think about it, these companies are some of the most liked, the most ubiquitous. Our adoration of brands goes hand in hand with our adoration of the super rich that the 99% supposedly despise. It is interesting that so many magazines are devoted to following every aspect of super rich lives and lifestyles. We love the lives of the super rich, we love their melodramas and tales of their frivolous excesses.

And that is the problem. The 99% both love and hate the super rich, want to become them or otherwise annihilate them completely – we can’t decide. We want to be like them, to have the things that they have, otherwise we don’t want anybody to have them. We may be part of the 99%, but much of the way in which we behave suggests that we don’t want to be.

Corporate greed and individual greed are two sides of the same coin. Corporate greed is nothing without the desire that drives us to consume, to acquire desirable goods that we use to denote our wealth and growing status. Corporate greed is nothing without the desires of the many. We may choose to band together with the poor, throw ourselves in with their lot, and collectively wave our fists at the corporate world, but we should really be waving them at each other and asking if we aren’t the glue that holds the whole system together – this glue, we feel, is something that we are hopelessly stuck in, it is our reason to do nothing, to resign ourselves to our own helplessness.

Graffiti on an abandoned warehouse near Melbourne's old wharves

Graffiti on an abandoned warehouse near Melbourne’s old wharves

Much was made of the role that social media played in the protests. When the beleaguered Egyptian government realised that the protesters were using social networking sites to organise themselves, they attempted to shut the Internet down. The Occupy protests also seemed to spread with the force of the Internet. Those that place undue importance on the role of social media understandably don’t tend to consider that it has lead to an innocuous form of protest that requires doing very little at all.

Social media enables us to join all sorts of groups and causes without really doing anything. While clicking a link and joining a group, feeling a sense of indignation for a while is better than nothing, it remains a hollow act that does little more than make us feel good about ourselves. The awarding of the Person of the Year to ‘The Protester’ has a similar feel-good effect for Time’s readership. The magazine made a similar move in 2006 when it awarded the prize to ‘You’, a reference to the fact that everyone takes part in creating Internet content, that each and every one of us is taking part in the creation of a wonderful world of communication and information.

The ‘You’ that received the award turns out to be almost the same as ‘The Protester’: the informed western citizen that rails against inequality in the world with the power of the Internet. The western citizen that ‘protests’ via the click of a button on a mouse, a collector of causes that they ultimately know little about except that they are incensed by it. Without any one cause really worth dying for, our heroic involvement is spread rather thin. Protest in this way is a feel good moment, something that makes us feel involved when we are not, that makes us feel as though we are doing something while we are actually doing nothing.

This may seem like a harsh judgement to make of people who believe that they are just doing the right thing, that believe that change can occur through protest and awareness. However, what is dangerous is precisely that of which we are not aware, in this case, the symbolic violence conducted through the perpetuation of myth.

 “What if the true evil of our societies is not their capitalist dynamics as such, but our attempts to extricate ourselves from them – all the while profiting – by carving out self-enclosed communal spaces from ‘gated communities’ to exclusive racial or religious groups… The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, buy their way out of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wildlife preserves, and so on.” Slavoj Zizek, Violence, p. 23

Interestingly, Zizek makes the argument that it is not those that lack an awareness of the systemic violence in which they are involved, such as pollution or the financial systems of which they are benefactors. Rather, the real danger are those that believe that they are aware of systemic violence but whose actions are an attempt to ‘buy their way out’ of any complicity in it. The Occupy protesters could be said to fall into this category: while leading comfortable bourgeois lives in cities such as New York, the protesters gather together and rail against the evil ‘other’, which allows them to think of themselves as virtuous and to distance themselves from the fact that they continue to be implicit in the very violence they are fighting against. It is not those that live with a lack of awareness that cause the problem, but those that believe that they are aware. It is those that believe that they already understand systemic violence and ‘buy their way out’.

As we have discussed, the myth involves two mythical groups, the victims, the 99% and the evil other of the 1% whose agenda is to keep the former in poverty. Locked in this mythical struggle, the middle class of the developed world can feel at one with the world’s poor when we are, in really, involved in the systemic violence perpetrated against them. Symbolic violence often functions in this way, i.e. to conceal other forms of objective violence. As long as we focus on the evil other 1%, we are able to think of ourselves as victims ‘just like everyone else’ and wash ourselves clean of any systemic violence of which we are part. Indeed, the mythological 99% also obscures any clear understanding of systemic violence: as a form of objective violence, true systemic violence has no particular agency, and yet the protesters point the finger at the 1%, they create an other on which the blame is laid.

The above example points out two things about the nature of symbolic violence: it creates divisions and abstractions. The division between the supposed 99% and the 1% is one that enables an abstraction: it allows us to think of ourselves as innocence victims and to feel a sense of solidarity with those that we actually harm through forms of systemic violence, such as the very corporate greed at which they point the finger.


References

Slavoj Zizek, Violence: six sideways reflections, Picador, New York, 2008