#Occupy doesn’t travel well

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The latte revolution is now in full swing. On Saturday October 15, the dormant hippies inside many (though not that many) middle-class beneficiaries of global trade “occupied” various spaces across the globe, determined to express their discontent. This global occupation was organised on the Internet, often via expensive smartphones, and we got to see it all in the numerous Instamatic photographs captured using the protester’s iPhones.

Starting with Wall Street, where it’s at least true that there’s a financial crisis to complain about, the Occupy movement has spread to places where that same complaint can’t be made – Australia was occupied, even though their markets are relatively stable. South Africa was of course occupied, despite the fact that our more conservative banks never exposed themselves to the sorts of risks their American counterparts did.

So for there to be an overlap between the occupations of Wall Street and those in Cape Town’s Company Gardens, it has to be found in some more general claim. This claim turns out to be that the 1% is doing something nasty to the rest of us – the 99%. Quite what that is I don’t know, seeing as I struggle to identify with either of these poles in an essentially false dichotomy.

Some people – too many people in a country like ours – are desperately poor and certainly have plenty to complain about. But many of these have very little involvement with the financial sector, and their complaints would more plausibly be directed at government. Service delivery failures and corrupt officials in local municipalities are more responsible for the average South African’s woes than the JSE is.

This one-size-fits-all protest doesn’t have the subtlety to address the myriad issues affecting the lives of the 99% – partly because the 99% doesn’t exist, and partly because it’s not at all obvious that capitalism is the root of all these evils. You can debate whether income inequality is even the issue at all, as Ivo Vegter has previously done at length. But there is little such debate in these protests, mostly because the protesters don’t seem to have any clue what they are protesting against.

The Occupy movement is relativism writ large. If you’re unhappy with your mortgage rate, join in. If you don’t have a mortgage or a house, Occupy is for you. Angry that the Dalai Lama wasn’t granted a visa? Anything goes, and your outrage is merited by the mere fact that you feel it, regardless of its cause. So come and occupy some tangentially relevant place on the map, and feel your leftie breast swell with pride at the social change you are effecting.

Except, you’re really not effecting much change at all, because all you’re offering is a complaint rather than any viable alternative. Even the uber-leftie rock star philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noticed this glaring problem with the movement, reminding protesters not to “fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here”. He remarked that “soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – questions not about what we do not want, but about what we do want”.

To answer questions about what we do want requires some form of ideology, resulting in the possibility some form of alternative. It’s not enough to say you are angry, because not every form of anger is either justified or coherent with the anger of those you’re protesting with. The question of whether your anger is coherent with the experiences of those you’re ostensibly protesting for is another matter entirely, and the moralistic paternalism of much of the Occupy rhetoric also merits scrutiny.

If you were to ask the poor and downtrodden what they want, I’d venture the guess that many of them want the same things you already have, and that they might consider it quite a desirable luxury (or an offensive indulgence) to be able to Tweet about your slacktivism to an international audience. And while they might share your anger at how The Man has kept them oppressed, they’d be entirely justified in asking just what you plan to do about it besides wave ideologically groundless posters about.

“People not profits” and “Be the solution” (two of the ready-made posters available from the Occupy Wall Street website) don’t say anything meaningful or helpful. Many people like profits, desire more of them, and have no problem with others making them so long as they do so legally. People and profits are not mutually exclusive, and it’s only through having read too little history or economics that you can be led to believe that they are.

To be “the solution” firstly assumes that there is one – and only one – solution, again raising the spectre of this disaffected and amorphous mass of protesters replacing one hegemony with another. Instead of corporations, I offer you lentils. Now be happy and keep quiet, because I’m trying to listen to Naomi Klein on my iPod.

Of course these movements are popular, because we all have something to complain about, and we’re living in a world where everyone’s opinion is treated seriously, no matter what that opinion might be. So it’s no surprise that the Occupy movement finds itself on the cover of TIME magazine, or that hundreds of thousands of people “like” it on Facebook.

A protest worth taking seriously has a defined target, and offers suggestions for fixing the problem. The Right2Know marches attracted thousands of people who understood which clauses of the Protection of Information Bill needed to be removed, and who marched for exactly that. Whether you agreed with the campaign or not, confusion regarding what it was about was impossible, and that is partly why it attracted so much support.

Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent occupations in South Africa and elsewhere are not about much more than generalised disaffection with “the system”, where you don’t even need to agree on which parts of that system are broken to join in. It’s certainly not a requirement for you to have any suggestions for fixing that system.

Instead, we simply protest because we’re unhappy, and because we are entitled to do so thanks to the freedoms of modern society. And, simply, because we are entitled.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.