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What Do We Want?

October 11, 2011

It has been a while between posts, hasn’t it? I am not an industrious writer. I do not produce on an industrial scale. And I don’t like writing. It codifies a perspective when the perspective naturally defies codification.

Nevertheless, I did find myself thinking about posting, and an email from a reader (I didn’t know there were any!) has prompted this post.

Steve M. wrote for my take on the Occupy movement, about  which he writes that it is exciting but “on the other hand seems to be filled with wage slaves who want to slave for slightly higher wages.  The idea of opting out and having a life, not a job, as you like to say on this blog, doesn’t really get explored.”

In this M. is echoing a sentiment expressed by the very industrious writer James Kwak at Baseline Scenario in his post Straight Out of Antiquity. Mr. Kwak rightly discerns the median demands of OWS as [hopelessly] bourgeois, the word finally appearing in his last paragraph.

He cites an analysis of the OWS Tumblr postings by Mike Konczal : “As his numbers indicate (and my reading of a decent chunk of the pages confirms), there aren’t many extravagant ambitions here: no expectations of material consumption, no expectations of self-actualization through work, no 60s-style dreams of peace and community.”

I would say that this is both accurate and to be expected. First because any look at the signage or internet postings of this amorphous group as a whole will give you only an overall view which, by the nature of the inquiry will give a median result. Within the framework of the data one is likely to find boundaries that range from the mundane (jobs and debt relief) to the slightly more ambitious (universal health care) to the impossible (ending corruption). This is entirely consistent with the mainstream aspirations of everyday people. I do not recall seeing the demands of demonstrators in Egypt, Greece, Spain or London for anything more radical. No calls for flower power.

Again, this is entirely consistent with a sentiment that I believe is at least instinctually understood by ‘the masses’; (as I have said before) “Capitalism is killing us, Socialism can’t save us, and no one knows what happens next.”

Those of us with the luxury of time for intellectual pursuits such as this one, like me and Mr. Kwak, naturally look at a wider set of issues in a longer time frame. We understand that the real-world pressures on the capitalist industrial system that are driving events will not, and can not be mitigated by the old regime of industrial capitalism and nation-state proxies. We understand that the human future – if there is one – will require a complete reworking of both the economic and political structures, accompanied by a complete reworking of individual human aspirations. It is only when the aspirations of people align with the actual demands and limitations of their environment can any kind of stability or modicum of satisfaction be achieved.

This mismatch between aspiration and possibility is what drives all social movements. It is quite natural that ~on aggregate~ the aspirations of ‘the masses’ are bourgeois and mundane. Materialism is the only ideology that most have ever known. The spread of consumerism worldwide through economic policy and mass media completely dominate the zeitgeist. There simply is no vision from the Left or the Religious Humanists that is both concentrated and coherent.*

But fear not. The consumerism that destroyed my generation (the Vietnam generation) is not available for this current generation. Try as they might, the industrialists may try to sustain their growth profits by exploiting every last molecule of carbon energy in Chinese factories, but it cannot work for very long. There will be a cataclysmic restructuring. Will this be preceded by the usual resource war? I hope not.

When we look at the campaign rhetoric of Mr. Obama, ‘no more business as usual’, ‘ending the tyranny of oil’, and so on as actual expressions of popular will – which I believe they are; the ‘change we can believe in’ – we can see that to accomplish these things in America will require what people everywhere have called for but have not realized anywhere as yet; regime change. A regime is a method, a standard practice. People in Egypt have not gotten regime change, they’ve gotten personnel change.

When we see the signs among the occupiers for REGIME CHANGE, such as I offer above, we will know that the stakes have been properly raised, and the struggle will get ugly.

Even so, I’m with them all the way. They are my dear, beloved bourgeois brothers and sisters.


*I had the good fortune, after my arrest in Washington at the Tar Sands / Keystone XL ‘sit in’, to find myself in the back of the police van with a number of religious leaders, the most interesting among them being Fr. Paul Mayer, a colleague of the Berrigans. We had a wonderful time discussing the Berrigan brothers, the nature of civil disobedience and the moral underpinnings of direct action if it is not to degenerate into a useless exercise of hatred and division. I presented my controversial comparison of the guidance of Thomas Merton and Philip Berrigan with the ‘guidance’ of Chris Hedges and Bill Maher, much to the discomfort of my fellow passengers. The difference is one of compassion (to suffer or feel together) versus one of division and retribution.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve M. permalink
    October 11, 2011 6:52 pm

    Saul Alinsky’s work references how people shut down when taken outside of their lived experience. Alinsky (paraphrasing) says that folks generally respond to problems based on what they have seen and understand in their lives. Because “dropping out” or living a life as opposed to looking for a job is outside of the mainstream most people do not have more radical viewpoints because they do not have access to the experience of the subterranean experience. As such, as you accurately note, the focus of the 99%ers on tumblr is fitting within the system, not making a new system–or, more likely, making an alternative system that could exist at the margins of the mainstream system.

    While I’d like to be optimistic about a shift away from materialism, my experience as a young person leads me to believe that materialism itself is shifting. Instead of coveting possessions, the materialistic project is moving online via facebook and its ilk and there’s been a shift towards the quantifying of friendship (via friend counts) and experiences (via photos). A common phrase from my generation: “Facebook, or it didn’t happen.”

    Still, I think that it’s too early to write the postmortem on OWS. It looks like it has legs. If this grows despite the snows, then I think that a nationwide general strike is possible. Ideally, a large number of people will be able to break away from “society as it is” and look for alternatives that are neither working 100 hours/week nor dying from lack of healthcare/money.

    Ultimately, I think that there will be a number of shocks ahead–and that they will be hard, but that they will be good. This is the beginning, and the fact that so many people from around the country have joined the call to spontaneously occupy gives me hope that another world is possible.

    • Stephen Malagodi permalink*
      October 11, 2011 7:29 pm

      Let’s also keep in mind that this is a global situation, not just a domestic or Western one.

      We must understand that a vast number of people in the world want, and legitimately need some of the products and benefits of industrialism. People in “developing” nations need industrial products such as refrigerators, washing machines, water purification, sensible transportation and communications systems, etc.

      The problem in those situations is how to provide essential services and products and how to avoid old models of unchecked consumption that have fueled Western industrialism.

      Clearly, it will be impossible to provide individual fossil-fueled automobiles globally to everyone who has the aspiration to have one not as a mode of transportation, but as a status symbol and sign of mature sexuality. Even if we develop electric cars as a viable product, the production of that much electricity via conventional methods is unsustainable.

      On the energy front we should note the scope of the challenge. For as long as human beings have been cooking, we have used carbon as our fuel source. It is the only fuel source we have ever employed (discounting the limited use of hydro and wind power so far.) Even the revolutionary employment of electricity is still bound by a 19th century production mentality. We produce electricity from centralized locations with coal, gas or nuclear reactors to heat water for steam turbines! What is called for is a completely revolutionary technology to produce portable power. Even still, there is no ‘free energy lunch’ and every watt of energy expended must come from somewhere. We have to do better than doing more with less, we have to ~want~ to do less with less.

      Similarly, it will be impossible to provide an adequate protein diet if the aspirations of the global population is for meat and physical bulk again as an indicator of social status. We are hard-wired for animal fat, sugar and salt. [When I was in Southern Africa many years ago, it was pointed out to me that it is a common status symbol to have rotted teeth, because that indicated you could afford lots of sugar.]

      These examples are why I say that a complete reworking of industrial and political structures is necessary, but also a complete reworking of aspirations are necessary. Without a global aspirational change, our desires will kill us.

  2. October 19, 2011 11:15 am

    Great stuff as usual. For someone who dislikes writing, you write as clearly as anyone I have read.

    Yes, education, education, education, with the prefix ‘self-‘ attached to each iteration. Toss in transparency and cross-fertilisation, and we can begin to hope we’ll learn how to want a different raison d’etre other than consumerism. The challenge is preposterous, global, unprecedented, and unfolding as I write.

  3. Debra permalink
    October 22, 2011 5:14 pm

    Tonight I watched Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” on DVD.
    You could check out “Ninotchka”. It is really eery hearing how much Communist Russia sounds so much like… WHERE WE ARE HEADING RIGHT NOW, with the best intentions, and for our own good, of course. (Did you ever meet anyone who proposed to deprive you of your liberties, without being firmly convinced of the legitimity of their ideal ? It’s really pretty rare.. We have much less to fear from the much villified evil doers of this world than from the do gooders. In my opinion.)
    I am pretty close to the kind of person you are talking about : dropped out, and dropping further all the time.
    We live pretty much like Luddites at home, and I started moving this way over 30 years ago.
    Quantifying friends on Facebook ??
    I am reading Illich’s book on conviviality. There’s another eery one. At the time when Illich wrote that book, he really almost coined the word “conviviality”. Now.. it is as stale as yesterday’s baguette. The way of the world.
    The last thing I want right now is GLOBAL SYSTEM BASED “solutions”.
    Better chaos than global solutions, I say. For the planet, AND for us.
    We just can’t seem to get out of the PLANNED ECONOMY MODE.
    That is a BIG BIG problem.

  4. Debra permalink
    October 25, 2011 3:44 am

    I agree with you on the compassion issue, if I understand what you are saying.
    In the 1980’s, I helplessly watched the United States move from a society where compassion was assigned value, to one oriented around the rage to punish.
    The demise of.. PARDON, along with compassion ??
    At the same time, I can say that my father, born in 1924, was both a top notch clinical scientist (forensic medecine), who went to Church every Sunday BECAUSE HE WAS A BELIEVER. He felt no contradiction between his scientific mind, and his personal, religious experience.
    His fifty year old son feels like the Christian religion took him for a ride, and maintains a basically VOLTARIAN attitude towards religious belief.
    i say… the Christian religion (regardless of all its failings…) has been our major ideological source for promoting ? preaching ? the POSSIBILITY of compassion and pardon.
    Its rapid and accelerating decline under the Enlightenment steamroller has left us with nothing BUT its secularized form in our modern (liberal…) nation states.
    How to bring them back ? This, to me, is the foremost preoccupation of our time.
    Compassion and pardon are the cornerstones of Jesus’ teaching.
    What kind of Christianity does away with them ??
    But I think that they are also consummately PRIVATE VIRTUES that the State cannot implement. The State cannot legislate love. “Love your neighbor” is already nonsense, to the extent that the verb “to love”, cannot be conjugated in the imperative, in order for it to have any power in our lives…
    All that is PRIVATE, and not public. In my opinion.

    • Stephen Malagodi permalink*
      October 25, 2011 7:54 am

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

      I consider this trait, compassion the act of suffering, or feeling together, to be a critical attribute if our species is to survive alongside the others on this planet.

      First, as a practical matter and as millions of people around the world know, when there is no effective or benevolent state (or church) structure, it is the acts of sharing and compassion that allow people to survive. [As an aside I would note that it is not ‘family values’ which often have included fratricide, infanticide, etc. that make survival possible, it is the ‘social values’ like cooperation across clan and tribe that make for survival.]

      Second, compassion cannot be taught or imposed. This was my takeaway from trying to understand what Thomas Merton meant when he said “Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis.” In Merton’s case, he was living in a religious order in which humility was an official policy, so the monks and acolytes would spend countless hours in practices and meditations to ‘attain humility’, much as we believe that the goal of Buddhism is to ‘attain enlightenment’, and so one becomes obsessed with the attainment; the obsession is a neurosis. Merton’s point is that humility, and I extrapolate that to compassion, is not an attainment or even a goal. It is, and must be, an attribute, a virtue, that is the result of conditioning, the process of adaptation to real events. In other words, there is no humility without the process of shame; there is no compassion without the process of suffering together.

      While this process may be personal, that is, it occurs in individuals, that does not mean that society shouldn’t enact policies that attempt to implement justice or fairness. But we must understand, and we now have 50,000 years of evidence, that social laws and structures, even those designed for justice and fairness, no matter how “enlightened” they may be, will be implemented in the particulars by individual humans who will tend to behave according to their own attributes, particularly if they’re working in a hidden space within a large organizational structure and not subject to oversight. It is very difficult to write rules for the implementation of mercy, or as you call it pardon.

      It is the unfortunate nature of a crowd to call for justice (as is predominant in the current Occupy movement), and rarely to call for mercy (unless some form of justice is about to fall on them). This is why I say that this attribute of compassion is not just “morally correct”, but critical to survival.

  5. Debra permalink
    October 25, 2011 11:31 am

    I have been exploring the idea of “grace”, which goes along with mercy and compassion, in my book, and in that other book that doesn’t get very good press, and is not read very well these days. The French psychoanalyst, Lacan, said that “healing comes from grace”. That means that grace is what escapes the goal oriented mentality, it is… the icing on the cake, as we say, it goes beyond the EQUALITY and equal signs. It goes beyond what is NECESSARY, or what is even “enough”.
    For me, grace is about saying “thank you” to the bus driver EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE TO, and even though HE IS PAID TO DO HIS JOB.
    “Grace” means there exists an order beyond (not above, not under…) the “this EQUALS that”, “this COSTS that”, “this IS WORTH that”.
    It means that even when you’ve bought and paid for, well, SOMETHING REMAINS. Grace is what remains that can’t be bought, sold, stolen, hocked, won, you fit in all the other economic words in the dictionary for our exchanges.
    My parents said grace before their meals.
    Social justice, and social equality are not about politeness.
    By continually starving ourselves under the survival regime and necessity, we blind ourselves to grace, and THE ECONOMY OF GRACE.
    The economy of grace is NOT about having enough, and it has little to do with austerity..
    A woman two days ago told me that she didn’t understand why I said that saying “thank you” to the bus driver was GRACE, that same grace that our Protestant and Catholic ancestors were arguing about way back when the Reformation was haggling about whether you could buy a shortened sentence to Purgatory by giving money to the Church, (or even buy salvation by doing good deeds, by the same token).
    I am a firm believer in being able to recognize the continuity of our history, in the ways that the words morph themselves beyond all recognition, their meaning that is, while their form remains the same.
    Can you believe that here in France, I am seeing ads for.. FREE GIFTS ??
    … now, that is 180° away from grace, in my opinion…
    That is what I call “idolatry of money”… and those.. EQUAL signs…

    • Stephen Malagodi permalink*
      October 25, 2011 11:54 am

      “There is another kind of justice than the justice of number, which can neither forgive nor be forgiven. There is another kind of mercy than the mercy of Law which knows no absolution. There is a justice of newborn worlds which cannot be counted. There is a mercy of individual things that spring Into being without reason. They are just without reason, and their mercy is without explanation. They have received rewards beyond description because they themselves refuse to be described. They are virtuous in the sight of God because their names do not identify them. Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw. Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God. Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection. Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.

      These are worlds of themselves. No man can use or destroy them. Theirs is the life that moves without being seen and cannot be understood. It is useless to look for what is everywhere. It is hopeless to hope for what cannot be gained because you already have it. The fire of a wild white sun has eaten up the distance between hope and despair. Dance in this sun you tepid idiot. Wake up and dance in the clarity of perfect contradiction.

      You fool, it is life that makes you dance: have you forgotten? Come out of the smoke, the world is tossing in its sleep, the sun is up, the land is bursting in the silence of dawn. The clear bell of Atlas [that (or he) which supports the world] rings once again over the sea and the animals come to the shore at his feet. The gentle earth relaxes and spreads out to embrace the strong sun. The grasses and flowers speak their own secret names. With his great gentle hands, Atlas opens the clouds and birds spill back onto the land out of Paradise. You fool, the prisons are open. The fatman [the atomic bomb] is forgotten. The fatman was only his own nightmare. Atlas never knew him. Atlas never knew anything but the ways of the stars, of the earth and of the ocean. Atlas is a friendly mountain, with a cloud on his shoulder, watching the rising sun.”

      Thomas Merton, Atlas and the Fat Man, The Behavior of Titans, p.46-48

      • Debra permalink
        October 27, 2011 10:03 am

        Stephen, would you please tell me what your Merton source is ?
        I looked for a book, but can’t find your references. Thanks.

      • Stephen Malagodi permalink*
        October 27, 2011 11:27 am

        “The Behavior of Titans” is extremely hard to find. The passage that I quoted is from Atlas and the Fat man, one of the essays in that book. Other work by Merton is readily available. Everyone, myself included, starts with “The Seven Storey Mountain”. After that, almost any of his popular books (he wrote a number of others of more interest to Trappist scholars), like “Seeds of Contemplation” or “No Man is an Island” are excellent.

        You can find more information about Merton at

  6. Debra permalink
    October 26, 2011 6:06 am

    Thank you for this quote, and for telling me where it came from.

  7. October 29, 2011 4:41 am

    A wonderful conversation! Thank you both.

  8. Debra permalink
    November 1, 2011 12:05 pm

    “The quality of mercy is not strained ;
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest ;
    It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest ; it becomes
    The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings ;
    But mercy is above this scept’red sway ;
    It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings ;
    It is an attribute to God himself,
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this :
    That in the course of justice none of us
    Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy….” Merchant of Venice, Act IV,i, 182-197, Portia’s speech.

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