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Q & A: The Occupy Movement

U of T philosopher Mark Kingwell offers insights

Occupy Toronto demonstrators taking to the streets Oct. 15. (Photo by Matthew D.H. Gray)

Writer Kelly Rankin caught up with philosophy professor Mark Kingwell to discuss the growing Occupy movement, mainstream media’s reaction and his latest book, The Wage Slave’s Glossary.

Much has been said about the Occupy movement’s lack of organization, lack of a spokesperson and or the lack of an overall coherent or single message. What do you think of the mainstream media’s reaction to the movement?

There has been a consistent reaction to Occupy that leans heavily on ‘lack’ -- lack of sound bite, single message, policy plan and so on.  

A popular protest does not need a message in the terms that suit the dominant discourse, including especially that of the media.  As my friend Douglas Rushkoff put it, Occupy Wall St. (OWS) might be less like a book and more like the Internet.  Times have changed; get used to it.  

This may go on for a while, it may mutate and shift.  There are, to my mind, clear policy goals that could be articulated, but recognition of the right to protest and its simple importance as an expression of the idea that capitalism is not working is essential first.

The Occupy movement does seem counter intuitive to the way things are ‘normally’ done, or is this the point?

It's a point the Situationists used to make: everyone says that protesters have to justify themselves, give reasons, articulate an overall plan and scheme of thought.  But why does this not also apply to people eating in restaurants, taking planes, making stock trades?  

Why is dissent subject to demands for clear and comprehensive justification when the very actions that dissent wants to bring into question are not?  That's called ideological domination, and it needs to be called out, early and often.

Comparing mainstream media’s reaction to the Occupy movement with that of the Arab Spring, we see a significant difference in the amount of coverage and the general attitude. How would you account for this difference?

Comparisons to the Arab Spring are telling.  There, it was apparently okay to have just a word -- democracy -- and a bunch of people mobilizing their discontent through their bodies.  Here, somehow it needs further justification.  

Why is democracy only a good thing when it's done somewhere else?  This just makes it obvious that a lot of people, not just the so-called one-percenters, have a vested interest in keeping the current arrangement just as it is.

Do you think the movement is anti-capitalist or about creating a fairer system? Is there something inherently contradictory about this movement? Many of the protestors seem to want jobs, the ability to ‘live the dream’ – yet, don’t recognize that this in itself might be the problem.

I think some of the people involved want to overthrow capitalism, yes.  Others just want a game that is less rigged in favour of the very few. The 99 per cent slogan is good, though of course it proves weak on analysis.  (What about the person who is next in line, wealth-wise, from the last of the numerically one percent of the world’s rich?  Surely he or she is still pretty damn rich…)

I think of this more in terms of a clear signal:  the system is broken, and it can’t be fixed by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or bailouts or even job-creation programs.  There have to be some basic shifts – in taxation, services, the very idea of government – in order to slow and maybe someday reverse the widening income gap.  

Real wages of workers have consistently declined over the past three decades, even as executive compensation has risen astronomically, sometimes by 500 or 1,000 per cent or more.  Not only is that obviously unjust, it is untenable.  The old rap against socialism was, “Nice idea, but it doesn’t work.”  You know what?  Capitalism doesn’t work either, and I’m not sure it’s even a nice idea.

Your latest book with Joshua Glenn, The Wage Slave’s Glossary, is listed in the collection of the OWS Library. Why do you think it has been included in the library? Does it offer protestors a glimmer of hope or confirm their worst fears?

Josh and I were happy to see that the book was in OWS library and that our timing once more proved lucky, if not prescient.  (The prequel to the WSG, The Idler’s Glossary, appeared in 2008, just as lots of people suddenly found themselves out of work because of the market collapse.)  

Language is the key to symbolic systems in human affairs, because being able to communicate meaning reliably to other actors offers a massive upgrade of co-ordination and co-operation potential.  But language is also a site of deception, manipulation, psychological pressure and what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt analyzed as ‘bullshit’ – lack of regard for the truth.

Our glossaries are whimsical and slight in appearance, but their message is deadly serious.  You need to understand the language the gives colour and meaning to your existence; you also need to understand the language of domination and diminution.

There’s a reason we look for slogans to help us fight injustice – the truly great ones are like poetry, capturing the truth in a few memorable words.  My favourite (pictured, right) is from a handmade poster used in Paris during the 1968 demonstrations:  La beauté est dans la rue!