Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Culture Of Dissent

Back in 2011, the establishment media made a stab at coping with protests outside of the political process the oligarchy controls.  The venerable New York Times ran an opinion piece by Charles Blow, Hippies and Hipsters Exhale, that ranged from making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- pointing out that the protesters amused themselves with face-painting and pillow fights -- to fretting about the idea that the protesters on Wall Street might represent the avante garde of a completely disillusioned American majority.  Blow's "sage" advice to the protesters?  Join the political process.  Come be co-opted.  Step right up.

Of course, Blow completely missed or chose to ignore the point to protests like Occupy Wall Street.    The protesters have rejected politics.  They are wide awake.  They no longer believe a political solution to America's problems is possible.  They are determined to win or lose in the streets, and they are committed to the notion that culture trumps politics.  (Think about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, anti-draft movement that ended the Vietnam War and the Johnson Presidency, but at the price of undermining The Great Society and opening the door of the Oval Office to Richard Nixon.  The way, we used to say, the cookie crumbles.)

When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time lounging around and arguing with a good friend -- a Marcusian who had ditched his Swiss name for "Baptiste" -- about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture.  I've never been more convinced I was right.  Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture.  Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea.  It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counter Culture of the Sixties and Seventies -- precisely the culture Blow derided in the title of his essay.

The real question is: Can the emerging protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counter Culture of the Sixties?  Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?

Near the end of the Sixties, the University of Texas School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach.  The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media.  The kicker -- the brainchild of Stan Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did.  The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge.  If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.

The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process.  The culture just isn't there to sustain it.

3 comments:

quinn esq said...

I'm at a worrying level of agreement with you on this, Billy. {Must be the daily Komo-biotics pellets.}

Culture over politics, absolutely. In my youth I wasted most of a year reading Habermas (much less fun than Marcuse.) My conclusion was the guy couldn't even read his own tea leaves, which clearly showed the fundamental crisis wasn't of fiscal deficits, or of political legitimation, but of motivation - and that that was culturally-driven.

Since then, I've only grown more convinced - and more gloomy.

Funny thing. My fave anecdote about Habermas was that he was once at a conference on the Mediterranean, and during an afternoon off, everyone went swimming. Habermas could be seen, standing waist-deep in the water, talking, debating, for hours, with all who approached. But never going in further or swimming or relaxing.

Which image has stayed with me for years, and I see it again when I read pieces like Blow's. Even when he's waist-deep, he hasn't a clue what's around him, or what it feels like.

And (with luck) the tide is rising.

Billy Glad said...

Haha! Wonderful image. I keep wanting to ask people who think these protests will lead to some kind of political action. Exactly who do you imagine is going to do what? There are no countervailing institutions left. Anyone who wants to change the way banks and other corporations do business has to take it up with the banks themselves. This little piece was on the front page at Firedoglake last night. Lots of comments. Number of people who were willing to entertain the notion that there might be something beyond getting people to vote for somebody -- one or two.

quinn esq said...

My nieces & nephews are my test group. Ten (plus four quasi-spouses) of them, aged 14-29, most in college or starting work, 3 in the U.S.

Two cross-pressures have arisen immediately. 1st, the pressure to know, upfront, "what the demands are" - what policies, specifics. If those aren't there, some of them feel it's not serious. It's "just" protesting about greed or capitalism. And this has clearly been rolled out by 2 of them as a "shutdown" argument. i.e. They ain't occupying nuthin'. (Funny enough, they both have careers already. Hmmm.)

The 2nd pressure, however, is an enormous desire to create something, to make a mark, to be wild and creative and... have their own 60's. These kids have been great at creating an Internet world, and they've got their own kind of male/female relations, new relationships to sports and nature and other races and a lot of things.

But they know that, in terms of art or pop culture, it's been flat. Musically, film, even books, comics - not so great. And style-wise.... weak.

Plus, they get the need for change. They get the economics. They know the world doesn't fit them, and they know the economy sucks - because only 3 of the 14 have really found their way into a career path.

These ones would like to change that... and with a bit of luck, cook up some new kinda culture, new kind of street history, one they can be proud of.

Oh yeah. And watch out for the girls. They're gonna lead, and they're different. If they take the reins of this thing, watch the fuck out, Billy. The cops and the politicians and the money may not have a clue what to do with them.

I know I don't.