The Arab Spring Versus Occupy Wall Street

*Another reflection from class. I rarely comment twice on a subject, but this piece is well-written and more reflective than the first. 

Going back to the readings from week 3 about the critiques of the vagueness and confusion caused by the term global civil society, I would like to offer some insights in the context of two recent transnational movements: The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

In this regard, I find Hardt & Negri’s (2000) interpretation in Empire useful for understanding these broader movements that are situated in regional contexts, but immediately leap to international awareness. They note:

“Furthermore, these struggles not only fail to communicate to other contexts but also lack even a local communication, and thus often have a very brief duration where they are born, burning out in a flash. This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much  celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable.” (p.54)

This is certainly true of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which encompasses a fragmented plethora of different issues like the critique of cut-throat capitalism, labour rights, indigenous rights, women’s rights, developing countries, income inequalities, and the list goes on. However, this movement has managed to displace media attention on the real human rights abuses in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, especially with the atrocities being committed in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Certainly, the transnational movement of the Arab Spring fits all the characteristics of biopolitical resistance and legitimate appeals to forming a civil society outside the state with the help of transnational linkages and foreign media presence. The occupation of Tahrir Square, the online presence of Egypt Twitter users, and the bloody repressions of protesters in the Syrian and Libyan regimes is proof enough of the universal nature of the democratic principle behind transnational movements. The Arab Spring is a legitimate part of global civil society with moral authority and political power that does not seek to impose itself on unwilling peoples, but seeks to inspire fellow peoples under authoritarian regimes to fight for the liberties that are essential to human development and progress.

However, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, I would certainly not label it as an instance of meaningful global civil society compared to the graver events occurring from the Arab Spring. In most democratic countries experiencing the protests, the police nor the army have tried to suppress these protests through brute force, unless the protesters themselves begin to perpetrate violence. As citizens in liberal democratic countries, the protesters are entitled to free expression, while the Arab Spring protesters do not enjoy the same luxury. Therefore, the Occupy Wall Street movement is NOT a case of sovereign-subject conflict due to the permissibility of their protests in open, democratic society. The subaltern is represented and heard at these protests, as well as “marginalized” groups like women, Native Americans, and other minorities.

As well, public space is always reclaimed in the name of some ideology, natonalist sentiment, or individual/group interest. With regard to the Occupy Wall Street protest, I think it is important to ask: For whom is Wall Street being reclaimed?(that is, for whose interests) rather than Who is reclaiming Wall Street? I think the successful ability of the Occupy movements to distract attention from the Arab Spring is perhaps the ultimate example of the discontented nature of global civil society as a concept. That is, Western priorities seem to have a greater and louder voice in these movements than other countries, which is problematic in my view. Capitalist greed should be the least of our problems when other countries in the world do not enjoy the civil liberties that can enable more equitable and free societies.

Knowledge and Euphoria

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain. For a long time, it was seen as the chemical of hedonism – the reason for ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’. While it is still responsible for those things, the latest research suggests that it is also a critical component of cognition. Dopamine allows the brain to detect patterns, to pick apart causations and correlations and figure out what will happen. It allows us to make predictions about reality, and as such, it’s a necessary aspect of making sense of the world. – Jonah Lehrer

This explains the “high” I get whenever I engage in extremely interesting literature in academia. It’s that brief flash of genius which seems to make a paper sing, clarifies your thought, opens up a vision you never saw before. It is the rational enlightenment that philosophers have infused with emotional tinglings and ecstasy. The Eureka moment, the cracking of the Sherlockean puzzle, Kant’s synthesis of the a priori and empirical which enables us to organize, categorize, perceive, and analyze the form of our sensual experience at a level incomprehensible to any other species than our own.

Behavioural economists like Thaler, Ariely, and Lehrer all argue that emotions have a large part to play in important decisions. They argue that bringing emotion (without abandoning reason) into heavily weighted life choices actually helps us to make better choices. These economists revive the usefulness of Plato’s analogy of reason controlling emotions and the appetite, but all working as team to make conscious decision-making and exercise self control when faced with biases, immediate returns, and a status quo.

Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel; who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! The Great Dictator, 1940

“Here is a secret: my mind is full of you. I go to sleep this way, I wake up this way; you follow me like a ghost.” – Niko Lonza, Pan Am

I’ve been meaning to write a post on the philosophy of love. Then I realized that all the words in the world cannot frame the height nor width nor depth of its power. To say anything on the subject in plain words, pin it down and analyze it, is to vulgarize it, distort it, even devalue it. In essence, what can anyone know of it save they who have experienced its entirety?

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul. – Pablo Neruda

Leadership

The interplay between leaders and their publics in a democracy is always complex. A leader who confines himself to the experience of his people in a period of upheaval purchases temporary popularity at the price of condemnation by posterity, whose claims he is neglecting. A great leader must be an educator, bridging the gap between his visions and the familiar. But he must also be willing to walk alone to enable his society to follow the path he has selected.

There is inevitably in every great leader an element of guile which simplifies, sometimes the objectives, sometimes the magnitude, of the task. But his ultimate test is whether he incarnates the trust of his society’s values and the essence of its challenges.

-Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy

 

Among my colleagues, I see future Members of Parliament, future international civil servants, future directors of organizations, future authors of acclaimed publications, future corporate executives, and the list goes on. In short, we are the next generation which will be taking over the reins of responsibility and power in the next ten or fifteen years. While many of us will see our talents and qualities finally put to good use, all our flaws and mistakes may also be amplified when we are in greater positions of leadership.  Ideals and principles change with time and experience, such that I worry whether we will still keep that same vision of the good to which all our efforts and education have been purposed.

This passage from Kissinger quiets the doubts and fears that I feel both for myself and others concerning our future responsibilities. We are encouraged to have a vision, an informed one and one that understands the complexities of democratic freedoms and liberties. Our thoughts on the possible are not constrained, but we are rather inspired to think big and think long term legacy. We are called to a role of enlightenment (though often a principle hard to pursue), whether we build on the lessons from the past and contribute to progress by moral, technological, and economic improvement (among other kinds of qualitative human progress). At the same, our flawed human nature gives us the wisdom to know our limitations when it comes to the great tasks of history and here, we are called to embody the values and challenges placed upon our shoulders.

However, Kissinger is quite ominous when he speaks of the solitary nature of leadership. The burden of power is a heavy one, especially when we must preserve it from corruption and banal influences. To pursue the path less travelled by may make all the difference, but at what cost? What principles are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals? What goals will you give up to preserve your principles? What kind of world or country do you want to live in? Is the status quo enough? Will you go the extra mile? Will you be up to the task if you are called unexpectedly to the ranks of leadership?

Perhaps such musings are naïve and cliché, invoking a sort of elitist arrogance and ivory tower exceptionalism, but it’s worth a shot to urge my colleagues to seriously consider what kind of leader they will be. The attitude is that we’ll worry about the responsibility of leadership only when we get there.  We’ve spent so much time living in the present and just surviving to the next midterm, paper, or work project, that sometimes we lose sight of that overarching vision that people like Roosevelt, Thatcher, Gandhi, Churchill, Gorbachev, and even Mulroney had. A confidence and certainty in self identity and a multi-faceted view of others is a good start to grounding leadership abilities. Taking the time to fine tune your worldview is not a bad idea, nor reading history or the great philosophers to build up a sort of apologetics for your beliefs and principles. Fortunately, I have every confidence that my friends will be up to the challenge when the opportunity presents itself and on that day, my hope will be that the world now rests in capable hands.

 

Biased and Proud of It

One of the reflective assignments I submitted in class. Upon re-reading it, I find it an excellent writing sample and a good expression of the way I feel about biases.

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Due to my social upbringing and environment, I had quite a few confirming biases ingrained in my identity, which I have had the good fortune of coming to terms with in the last few years. Having worked on political campaigns, I have certainly seen a lot of these biases in myself and among colleagues. Sometimes we defend policies or statements that are poorly constructed or contrary to our own principles. I suppose we do this because we believe that the party is the “lesser of two evils” or, in my case at least, a party that still represents my principles at its core despite the human errors of its members. With politics, it is so easy to manipulate confirming biases in other people who are not as informed as you are, simply because they don’t have the time to follow politics. I also see confirming bias at work in my religious practice.

When I was a child, I accepted Catholic doctrine without interrogating its importance or relevance to my life. I defended its flaws to my non-practising friends with fervour and could not understand why they didn’t see things my way. Eventually I experienced a certain ennui with it and it was only later in life when I returned to it with a more intellectual understanding that it seemed to be infused with new meaning for me. In all these instances of confirming bias in religion and politics, I tend to find that the ignorant are the ones most content with the status quo and reject the notion of progress in normative values. However, does it mean that such institutions are flawed and corrupt since they produce masses of people with comfortable confirming biases? I think it’s a two-way street: individuals are equally responsible for not taking the time to question what they think and believe. Breaking down confirming biases permits either a more enlightened understanding of the subject or a complete rejection of it as the veil of ignorance is removed.

On a side note, I would like to elaborate on the idea itself of a confirming bias if that is permissible. As I was saying to my colleagues, it is important to distinguish between bias and principle. Both are equally submitted to challenge and critique, but I do think that after a certain amount of exhaustive criticism, a confirming bias ceases to be a bias and becomes a principled truth. Here, I would like to take a page from the brilliant John Stuart Mill: The expression of an idea or opinion can either be true, false, or a portion of the truth. If the opinion is true, criticism will prove and strengthen its verity. If false, criticism will break it down and bring to light the truth. If partly true, then it will encourage others to find the whole of it. Similar to what my colleague Scott said the other day, if no one had any confirming biases, the world would be quite a dull and monotonous place. The formation of knowledge exists in the Socratic questioning and challenging of each social construction built into our identity, such that the awareness of possessing confirming biases should only spur us further to interrogating them.

The Biopolitical Occupation of Space

I’ve become lazy in my posts, using video or images to convey my philosophical experiences. I would just like to offer a few comments on the “Occupy Wall Street” movements from my own perspective.

I find it interesting that the protests encompass a disorganized plethora of different issues like cut-throat capitalism, labour rights,  indigenous rights, women’s rights, developing countries, income inequalities, and the list goes on – such that the whole of it comes out as a huge disorganized disunified cacophony of human dissatisfaction. The majority of the protesters seem to favour a Marxist slant (much to the dismay of people who still remember what communist rule was like) and I am well aware that the majority of the funding that sustains the protest is coming from trade unions, who would rather throw away thousands of dollars to stir up civil unrest rather than use that money to hire a couple of the more moderate protesters.  Certainly, I fully support their right to protest and express themselves, but the multiple cases of censorship and violence that have occurred leave me doubtful of the movement’s principles. Not to mention that the movement has managed to displace media attention on the real human rights abuses in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, especially with the atrocities being committed in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Now that I’ve debunked the tenets of the protests, I would just like to highlight a few interesting points. The incommunicability of the Occupy Wall Street protest seems in line with Hardt & Negri’s assertion in Empire as instances of biopolitical resistance that leap to international importance. Granted, the majority of the protesters are fairly privileged (I’ve seen them playing around with cellphones and most have the option to return to a home). In The Production of Space, the occupation of Lefebvre’s monumental space is supposed to infuse new meaning into the place, while at the same time, the monumentality of the space infuses the protest with new meaning. In the majority of cases, the usage of monumental space for protest is supposed to make visible the power of the sovereign as exercised against the subject. However, the sovereign is not engaging with the populace in this matter, because what is perceived as 99%, is really the 1% who want something to march about.

In most democratic countries experiencing the protests, the police nor the army have tried to suppress these protests through brute force, unless violent actions by the protesters themselves ensues. The protesters are not in Agamben’s notion of the camp, not external or outside of society, nor the victims of state failure (Canadian protesters are probably more well-off than their American counterparts, so perhaps we can argue that the Obama administration has failed the American people with their massive unemployment, their poor regulation of stimulus spending and massive deficit/debt). Therefore, the Occupy Wall Street movement is NOT a case of sovereign-subject conflict due to the permissibility of their protests in open, democratic society. The subaltern is represented and heard at these protests, as well as “marginalized” groups like women, Native Americans, and other minorities (though I would dispute applying the term to the first).

It’s also interesting to note how the meaning of the occupation has evolved. Previously, occupation usually meant physical military occupation of territory, sometimes of the population (as in ancient times) though international law deems the latter illegal. Now, occupation means physically being present in (biopolitically occupying) a particular space, whether by violent or peaceful means. The connotation is still there that the place is being reclaimed or taken by force. Reclaimed in the name of some ideology. Reclaimed in the name of nationalist sentiment or public interest. With regard to the Occupy Wall Street protest, I think it is important to ask: For whom is Wall Street being reclaimed? (that is, for whose interests) rather than Who is reclaiming Wall Street?

Like Foucault, I accept that power struggles are a natural part of any government and the people or individual are usually the counterforce to the state’s force. As a true conservative, I always question and critique both forces before accepting the power of one or the other over me. Perhaps it is anti-progressive and anti-democratic of me to question such movements, but the day that we are not permitted to question anything is the day that democracy and progress will have died.