The Occupy movement seems as if it has the potential to do great things. While it professes no leadership, it has galvanized the left—and a growing part of the middle, possibly—in ways that no other issue has over the past decade—since the invasion of Iraq, actually. And galvanize it has—it’s a worldwide phenomenon now, here in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, and elsewhere. It has provided a focus for the anger—outright rage, in many cases—at the lack of accountability of the financial and political elite for the crisis of a couple of years ago, and the state of the economy now, at a time when it is god-awful difficult for many families in America and many other industrial economies to make ends meet, or just to stay in place. People are going backwards, and they know it. One can only admire the determination and focus of the people involved. One can only feel outrage at the indifference, so far, their protest has engendered in the corporate media and the policy elites. The tragedy in Oakland is symptomatic of a deep sickness in American culture, one that the financial and political elite seem perfectly comfortable perpetuating at the expense of both people and planet.
And yet, and yet…. I’m bothered by something, and I haven’t really seen anyone focus on what is actually being demanded here. Well, not demanded, actually, since people’s motives here are broad and wide. But there’s a broad insistence on economic justice, as if that could be satisfied by lower CEO pay, or sending some of the obvious crooks on Wall Street to jail. I suppose the latter might happen, but not nearly enough to matter, frankly. But there’s clearly more at issue here—it’s the lack of work, the lack of mobility, the fact that the American Dream no longer seems attainable.
But it’s a shibboleth, an illusion. The only person I’ve seen articulate the concerns I have is Gwyneth Jones, who writes (in a longer and much better thought out piece than I could come up with):
The trouble is, in real life as opposed to outer space, there is another value… and it’s the worth of the living world, the only planet we have. This present crisis looks “bad” but the environment we live in can still be squeezed. Fossil fuels can still be extracted, at horrible cost but in mighty volumes of natural gas, even if the oil is running a little low. Forest and wilderness can still be cleared for agribusiness, in staggering enormous swathes. The oceans can be killed stone dead. And this is what will happen, and this is what must happen, if the middle classes and the masses are to be given enough of a “share of the wealth” to shut them up again.
I admire the Occupy movement very much, but I’m afraid their mass support is coming, has to come, not from those who want something new, but from the angry people who simply want the machine to work again. They want economic growth to go on, forever and ever, so that ideally (and this is what dresses the mass movement in idealism) everyone, every single one of the 7 billions and counting, can have the good life. But I don’t want that, even if it were possible. I don’t want to share the wealth, I want the wealthy to share my frugal sufficiency. I don’t want my rights restored (the right to a new car, two weeks in the Maldives and a new gadget, every six months). I want those “rights” withdrawn from circulation. I want to trade them for a future I can look forward to without dread and grief.
The whole thing in America the past three decades has been an illusion, a house of cards, a trick with mirrors. It all comes down to credit. People got more and more credit, and thought they were rich. So the bigger house, and the extra SUV, the endless supply of gadgets. And everyone got to move to the Sunbelt even as the industrial economy was being hollowed out, and homebuilding became the most important industry in America.
And it all depends on energy being cheap. This has been America’s natural advantage for decades, perhaps even longer. Energy in America has always been cheaper than in Europe or Japan. It’s what let the country expand the suburbs, so that everyone could have the four bedroom monster with central air conditioning and SUV or two in the driveway. And a lifestyle where you have to drive everywhere—it’s not optional. In most parts of the US, even in most cities, you can’t not drive. Which is why every time the cost of energy goes up, the country has a conniption fit.
Well, the current period of adjustment, if nothing else, would have at least offered the prospect of weaning America from its energy addictions. It looked for a while there as if the prospect of cheap energy, and the artificial economy based on artificial credit that enables it, would disappear. But that might not be the case now. There is, in much of Europe and some of the rest of the world, a recognition that adaptation to and mitigation of global warming will mean that energy, yes, will become more expensive. The American policy elite, both Republican and Democratic, remain in deep denial. This is what I find deeply scary about shale gas—not so much that America might have cheap energy again, but the price it’s willing to pay to have it. In any choice there days between jobs and the planet, the planet usually loses. It didn’t take long to BP to get a new permit for deep drilling in the Gulf again, didn’t it? In this regard the Obama administration’s decision regarding the Keystone Pipeline will be telling. I’m not optimistic.
So where does this leave Occupy? Well, according to Michael Moore, Occupy is beyond party politics. Moore occasionally has useful things to say, but this is not helpful. If this isn’t political, what’s the point? I have no idea what Occupy should be about. Economic grievances are obvious, and curing them is a necessary part of whatever transition we’re about to undertake–if that’s what is going to occur. But it’s not sufficient, and may even be counter-productive if, as Jones intuits, it simply becomes a return some familiar old mantra of jobs jobs jobs, which can take on an aura of Drill Baby, Drill if we’re not careful. But the goals here seem so inchoate that, really, this could go anywhere. Maybe a working democracy not owned by the usual suspects would be enough. It would be fantastic, in fact. But that next step—towards a voluntary simplicity and greater localism in our economic expectations—that remains to be seen.