“What,” ask the pundits, “do the Occupy Wall Street people want?” When they deign to answer their own question, they tend, if they are uncharitable, to say that the protestors don’t know what they want, that any real message is lost in a miasma of different agendas. The more charitable type of pundit tends to say something more along the lines of “the protestors know what they’re against — economic inequality and the power of money — but they don’t know what they’re for.” I’ve spent enough time at the Chicago manifestation of the movement to see the iota of truth in both the charitable and the uncharitable analysis, but in the end both analyses miss the significance of what’s happening. To get at that significance, it’s important to drop the usual categories of analysis — left and right, cultural and economic, idealist and realist — and come at matters from an angle where things appear less familiar. Otherwise, we risk reducing something truly new into one or another version of what we find familiar. So bear with me while I propose a means of analysis that might seem quite strange: it’s the strangeness that we’re after, here, since the familiar categories of understanding have proved remarkably ineffective.
Mythos and Movement
As the scholar Malcolm Bull argued in New Left Review (March-April 2010), Greek mythology presents a coherent typology for understanding the relations of power, production, and knowledge. In his view, the Greek mythos can be mapped out on a pair of axes thusly:
Olympus is the realm of pure power, in its various manifestations. It is the dwelling-place of Zeus, the figure of pure executive power, and of Hercules, the figure of physical strength. It deals with realities, and does so by ruling over them, by authority, by influence and manipulation, or by sheer force. It is the realm of mastery.
Hades also deals with realities, but does so differently. It is the realm of production, where Hephaestus works at his forge: his realities are those of existing materials, of the strengths and limits of bronze and silver and gold. Many people who know their myths have been puzzled about why Aphrodite is married to the lame, ugly, Hephaestus — but at a symbolic level, it makes perfect sense: while he is the figure of artisanal, or even industrial production, she is a figure of sexual reproduction. Together they cover the realms of inorganic and organic production. If Olympus is the realm of mastery, Hades is a subordinate realm, the world of labor set against the Olympian world of command.
Parnassus deals less with existing realities than with the free play of speculation: it is the realm of Athena and the life of the mind, and of Apollo and the poetic. The muses dwell here, and it is to Parnassus that scholars and intellectuals repair. Like Olympus, it is a privileged realm, but unlike Olympus, it is not a world of power. To put it in modern terms, one might think of Olympus as the realm of executives, and Parnassus as the world of tenure, think tanks, and foundation grants.
And then there’s Arcadia. This, too, is a realm of free play rather than of existing realities with all of their limitations. But unlike Parnassus, this isn’t a world of concepts or philosophies or epic poems: it’s a wild realm, a realm of potential energies. It’s the world of Pan, who dwells in forests and open meadows that have not been brought under cultivation. It’s the world of Diana the huntress, another forest-dweller defined in terms of potential: she is, after all, the virgin goddess. Everything about Arcadia is about the primitive state of things, from which other things might emerge.
Hermes, the messenger god, is a special case: he inhabits the very center of the map, at the intersection of the axes: this is central to his function as the messenger god, and to his function as the god of boundaries and those who cross them.
Once one grasps the general structure of mythological relations, a lot of things become clear about the significance of the myths: when Apollo and the faun Marysas (a figure of Arcadia) have a musical duel, won by Apollo who then flays Marysas, we have a kind of martyring of naïve or potential artistry by the established forces of Parnassus. One can see its relevance to, say, aristocratic culture’s disdain for folk culture, or the sophisticated formalist’s soul-crushing dismissal of emergent talent.
But we’re a long way from talking about Occupy Wall Street. What happens when we try to view the movement through a conceptual framework as defamiliarizing as the Greek mythos?
Occupying Olympus, Occupying Hades, Occupying Parnassus
The first thing that should be clear about Occupy Wall Street is that it isn’t a movement based in Olympus. Unlike the Tea Party, which was bankrolled by the enormous fortunes of the Koch Brothers and for which Fox News served as something like an advertising and P.R. firm, Occupy Wall Street has little or no connection with the realm of worldly power. Even when those in powerful positions, such as President Obama, make gestures of sympathy to the movement, they do so in ways both unconvincing and uncomfortable. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post put it clearly enough:
President Obama’s awkward, unreturned embrace of Occupy Wall Street is among the strangest developments of the 2012 campaign…. Obama has been the unrivaled leader in fundraising from the financial sector in recent years. Senior staffers with Wall Street connections have occupied the White House for some time now. Banks and financial-service firms have been some of the main direct beneficiaries of Obama’s economic policies. And Obama himself has often sought to defuse public criticism of Wall Street.… Last year, he went out of his way to defend large bonuses for the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen. I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.”
A stronger case can be made for Occupy Wall Street as a movement based in Hades, under the protection of Hephastus (if that sentence doesn’t defamiliarize the political categories, I don’t know what will). Unions, for example, have intermittently swelled the ranks of the protestors in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. But the key word here is “intermittently”: the Occupy protests are not union-centered rallies, like those we saw in Wisconsin earlier this year. Union leaders don’t call the shots. If they did, we probably wouldn’t hear the punditocracy’s complaints about the lack of a clear message: instead, they’d be writing about how the demands of workers for decent wages and benefits are unreasonable in a globalized economy.
What about Parnassus? Is this where the real center of the movement rests? There are certainly plenty of students to be found at the demonstrations, and a few professors (full disclosure: my tenured feet have occupied a few sidewalks and parks in Chicago). But the disproportionate representation of students is certainly a matter of greater opportunity to show up, rather than of significantly greater motive. As one man said at a recent demonstration, “you students, you’re my voice: I work 60 hours a week to keep my house, and I look after my kids, and I just can’t get out here often.” Some polls suggest that the majority of Americans support for the movement: this isn’t an ivory tower thing, not in its essence. Veterans, working stiffs, union guys, moms with kids in tow, office jockeys, street people, and others are all in evidence, and though they applaud when Cornell West speaks, they’re not lining up behind him: they’re standing beside him.
Et in Arcadia Occupy
This leaves us with Arcadia. But what exactly is Arcadia, anyway? In the Greek mythos, it’s all about what might-yet-be. It’s where Paris stands when he judges who has the greatest beauty: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. This is significant: he’s choosing between representatives of Olympus (power), Parnassus (knowledge) and Hades (production), and as he makes the choice from the only position outside of their realms: in Arcadia, the world of the not-yet, the potential.
This, I think, is the proper location of the Occupy movement in the Greek mythos, at least at the moment.
A few days ago I was arguing with the historian D.L. LeMahieu about the nature and meaning of the Occupy movement, and I’d begun with the proposition that what we were seeing was a resurgence of the now-old New Left paradigm: the language of class, anti-capitalism, and economic justice returning after a long eclipse. LeMahieu refuted all that, claiming that what we were seeing wasn’t a return to something old, but the birth of something new. Sure, there were old left-wing slogans. But this was part of the mulch out of which something very new was being born. We weren’t going to see a new socialism, because socialism was the countervailing force that tried to civilize 19th and early 20th century capitalism: it was a response to a kind of economics that doesn’t really exist anymore. We’re in a new phase of economic development, with transformative technological forces and the entry two billion of new workers into a global marketplace. We had an unprecedented economics (which developed out of our old economics), and it would create an unprecedented politics (which would also develop out of our old politics). I’m convinced LeMahieu was right: we’re not going to get a return to something old, even if the new thing we get takes up and transforms the old political paradigms.
In a way, the very fact that the pundits have had a hard time grasping what the protestors want is a sign that what’s coming together is something truly new. It doesn’t fit easily into our paradigms. It’s not a student protest, it’s not a labor protest, it’s not a rally orchestrated by one or another of the political parties. Slavoj Žižek got at the nature of things in his address to the protestors in Zuccotti Park:
So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.
…. Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?….We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize Capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible.
I’ve only felt the political ground shift beneath my feet twice in my life. The first time was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when one could feel a horrible lurch toward authoritarianism and fear. The other time is now. I don’t know where it’s all going any more than you do. But unlike last time, I have faith that it’s moving in the direction of hope.