Politics and Fiction: The Story of Occupy Wall Street

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Like many of us, I have been watching the events of the Occupy Wall Street, and the Occupy movement in general, unfold with interest. I have my own hopes and fears about the  recent developments in my country, as many of you who follow my posts on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook know, but that’s not what I want to talk about right now. Instead, I want to talk about how our narratives disclose our attitudes about the world, and the place of social and political ideas in art in general.

Throughout human history, there has been an interaction between the cultural products we produce and our body politic. The assumptions we bring to our writing, in specific, reveal much about our culture and its values. Throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century, we have seen our heroes change again and again, but one thing is clear: our narratives have become cynical. The clean-cut, all-American soldier, the undisputed and indisputable hero of the triumphant movies of WWII were challenged and became more complex as our simple faith in our own moral justification has been challenged again and again in real life. The policeman, the politician, the business-leader, the everyday worker, the parent, the child…each of these roles, and the pitfalls and triumphs implied in each, are explored through our fiction. In a sense, we can use our fiction to try out futures, philosophies, and ideas. We can imagine complex and meaningful ways for our real lives to play out through our fiction.

This is not a new idea, of course. From Aristophenes and Ayn Rand to punk rock and Sartre, people have used art to express the world as they see it, sometimes in the hopes that people would embrace it, but just as often simply as play, as a means of exploration of possibilities.

This applies nowhere more than in speculative fiction; what if we developed FTL travel? What if we could engineer people to specification? What if we sent a colony of anarchists to the moon? What if we really did blow it all up?

Now we seem to be experiencing a world our fiction predicted. On some level, we have never forgotten that hubris never goes unpunished, so much of our fiction has been about the collapse of modernity. This is a new type of fiction, in a sense. While the ancients wrote many apocalypses into their religions, the notion of a post-apocalyptic story is all ours. We have told the tale in thousands of ways, but it all comes down to the same thing: the end of the world, and what we do after.

So as I observe the Occupy movement gain strength, I note the fiction that I have seen take hold. The new Batman: Year One animated movie shows us not some caricatured super-villain, but a corrupt police commissioner and a crooked system. We find ourselves loving the Batman as he interrupts the elite dinner party and tells the wealthy and privileged of Gotham that no one is safe.

There’s been a lot of that over the last 10 years or so. Firefly/Serenity showed gave us ragtag heroes oppressed by a benevolent dictatorship that through well-meaning legislation created a race of monsters. Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, and Eureka all present heroes that are geeks and freaks fighting the good fight, often against a government that is not only basically incompetent and needlessly aggressive, but downright malevolent and dangerous. Torchwood’s recent big bad was a combination of all the governments in the world, hand in hand with a group of wealthy conspirators who want not only eternal life, but to profit from the whole world’s misery and oppression.

And now, in the midst of this world crisis, there is a new tale being written, and it follows this model. Around the country, across the world, people come together to stand against those that would destroy everything for their own gain. They are occupying public spaces and marching in the streets in an attempt to write a new story, to give us a new way to live, and an alternative to the path we are on. Their use of symbol and narrative is self-aware…these are people who know they are on TV. They know they are living in a story, and they’re trying to be the heroes.

But there is peril in this…so much of this story is angry. So much of it is hopeless. I know that I often feel that way reading these accounts of the protests and the arrests. We need another new tale, a sequel to Occupy Wall Street, because we need a better story than just fighting back. We need a story about what we do once we win, how we live in such a way that our grandchildren aren’t right back here in a few decades. We need a tale worthy of a new America, perhaps a whole new world. A tale that doesn’t just indict what we are, but praises what we could become.

I don’t know if I have it in me to write such a tale, but hope that others out there are scribbling right now, dreaming us a new American Dream…

But until then, games and my own writing must keep me amused, while advertisers like PartyPoker Portugal must keep my wife and I eating. If any of you have some new tales that you’re working on, leave me a comment…I would love to hear about it!

4 thoughts on “Politics and Fiction: The Story of Occupy Wall Street

  1. Justin Zimmer

    And sometimes life imitates art. Just look at what was going on while America was masturbating to Jack Bauer torture porn. Supreme Court Justices using a sick fantasy TV show to justify real torture against terrorists in Guantanamo, and “interrogators” in that same prison using 24 for ideas, all against the warnings and advice of real military, CIA and FBI interrogation experts. That show was an extreme right-wing wet dream and not only did it reflect the attitude of revenge shared by much of the American people, but it became part of the American reality. I’m glad I never watched it, I just might have liked it. I think America is waking up from the narcotic haze of aggrandized entertainment and realizing that there is a world outside of their 16:9 aspect ratio and it doesn’t follow a script. We are seeing that the pillars of Parthenon are made of plaster and chicken wire, and our head is pounding from an economic-political hangover. 63% of the 99% missed the congressional elections last year. The next thing we need to occupy is the voting booths!

    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      The voting booths that run on closed source software created by a private company that we can’t review? Or the voting booths that don’t matter anyway because you never get a chance to vote for anyone who isn’t bought and paid for?

      I agree about 24…I believe shows like that help normalize and create a narrative for justification for atrocities. But it’s a story…in a sense it’s all a story. We need to live a better one that challenges stories like that one.

      Thanks for reading, Justin!

      1. Justin Zimmer

        I understand your cynicism regarding the voting process. I shared it, and to a degree still do. There is a hopelessness there, a mistrust. How do you choose the lesser of two evils? Madison wrote about this attitude, he feared that it would spell the end of their experiment in self-government. It is this same attitude that kept me home on election day for fourteen years, but a system cannot fix itself, and we can’t expect others to do it for us, because that’s how it broke in the first place. We can run around in circles all day about how meaningless our votes are, or that there are no good choices anyways, but how can we test the system when only a minority votes. We have a Tea Party congress because the Tea Party voted. And if we let the Tea Party be the only one’s who vote in 2012, we will find ourselves, very soon, in a backwards theocracy. OWS isn’t going to change Wall Street, because Wall Street doesn’t care. You might as well try and convince a tiger not to eat you. OWS needs to change us. The Republicans in Congress aren’t listening, otherwise we’d have 400k more jobs right now.

        Imagine the outrage when 75% of the voting age public shows up to vote, and the results don’t match the gallup polls. You want to prove biased software, you need to show dissonance between input and output. If we want better options in the big elections, we need to focus on the small elections, elect congressmen and legislators who aren’t millionaires. 40% of registered voters are independents. That leaves only 60% between the other two parties.

        I’m passionate about this now, because I woke up recently from over a decade of could-care-less and observing the death and destruction behind me. I see the thousands of bodies that have returned from Iraq, I see the millions of people unemployed, and I realize that I didn’t do a damned thing about any of it. Even had I shouted into the empty night without a single ear to hear my cries, I would stand today hoarse with purpose. If we let the same people who voted in this congress vote in the next president: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt GINGRICH, what will happen next? If we stay home while these looneys pass “Life begins at conception” amendments to state constitutions, what will prevent them from amending the US Constitution. Redefining the separation of church and state. People sitting in a part on Wall Street aren’t going to change that. They are merely the symbol of our discontent. They are our motivation to do something. And that something, through the force of numbers, is to vote. Otherwise we’re just screaming into the wind. I want to see a 75% voter turnout this next election. I’m going to rally at my local level to get my fellow independents to vote. I live in Arizona, a traditionally red state, yet 35% of the registered voters in my state are independents. We outnumber the democrats, and are neck and neck with the Republicans. There is no reason why we can’t show up blue, or whatever other color, on that big electoral map come November 2012. There is a lot of inequity and bullshit in our electoral and voting system, but it will never change if we just stay home and abdicate our vote. Because I assure you the die hard, Tea Party republicans are going to show up, and they do not represent OWS.

        1. Neal Jansons Post author

          While I respect your passion, I think it would be wise to look into our national history. People like Gingrich and the other people you listed have run this country since the beginning. The ink wasn’t dry on the Constitution before people were warping it and ignoring it to suit their own ends. “All men are created”…so long as you’re white (and depending on which chunk of history we’re talking about, the “right” kind of white…”Irish need not apply”, etc), male, heterosexual, Christian, and rich. The radical embrace of Smithian capitalism, which required the privileged and educated white people (like Smith) who had never had to be a worker in their lives to ignore a radical and glaring logical error in the system that rigged it against workers, was no accident. The continued destruction of the indigenous people of North America, the systematic exploitation of minorities, women, and children by the bosses, the whole damn shebang would not have been possible if the people running the show had EVER been sincere in their rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty” and “equality”.

          Consider the way capitalism became the religion of this country. An educated, privileged white guy writes a book called “On the Wealth of Nations”. It details a system of economics where he claims that by everyone being greedy and acting in their self-interest, the entire economy will benefit. The key element that makes this “Invisible Hand” possible is choice…capital makes choices to minimize cost while maximizing profits, and labor is supposed to do the same thing with the price of their wages. The magical market will decide prices, of both products/services and labor, through people having the choice to not buy a given product if it is priced too high, and workers refusing to take work where the wage is too low. Thus, according to Smith, we would achieve equilibrium, where Price == Value, for everyone. Since everyone would be “profiting”, which means getting more wealth out of the system than they put in, this equilibrium would be ever-rising once it was stable, and the rich would get richer, the poor would get richer, and everyone would be happy.

          Now, there is a glaring logical flaw in all of this. Capital has the ability to act as a rational economic agent, using min/max calculations to decide prices, wages, times to expand production, cut it, etc.. However, labor and buyers DO NOT have this ability. Workers can’t just decide not to take a job because the wages are too low because ever since the industrial revolution, we have essentially had a surplus of labor. Capital doesn’t need workers, but workers need jobs to survive, to keep their family eating, etc. Buyers can decide not to purchase luxury goods, but we can’t do things like drive down the cost of medical care by not purchasing it because it’s generally a need. Same thing with food, water, and nowadays, electricity. We can’t drive down the prices by “voting with our wallets” on the majority of necessary services, nor can we refuse to work at a given wage. And this means that labor and buyer cannot act as the rational economic agent capital is free to act as, which means that always and forever the relationship between capital and EVERYONE else is a seriously unbalanced power dynamic. Unbalanced power dynamics tend to lead to exploitation, and that is exactly what has happened.

          Now, these flaws must have been evident to the privileged and educated people who read this philosophy and decided they liked it a lot. The rhetoric of capitalism made it SEEM like the workers and buyers had a fair game, while it would really always favor capital. Every time something came into existence that would attempt to balance these scales, such as the FDA, unionism, progressive taxation, labor laws, etc., capital and the government they dominated used various techniques ranging from physical and legal intimidation, fixing the laws, and engaging in a propaganda campaign that has gone on so long, and to such a great degree, that capitalism, a philosophical theory with no more evidence behind it than any religion, is taken to be written in stone and delivered from on high. People who would never believe in the supernatural still believe in the magical “Invisible Hand” that will make everyone richer if we just cater to one of humanity’s greatest flaws…greed. It’s take for granted in a way that makes no sense, especially considering the model of decision-making it assumes is just not how the human brain has been found to work. We are not rational the vast majority of the time, so any system predicated on “given rational agents, this will happen under these conditions” is just la-la land…more religion that has no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence against it.

          As far as voting goes…have the lessons of the 2000 election been forgotten already? The reason the Tea Party got their congress wins was because the rich and powerful wanted them to. Notice that there has been no real difference between what the Tea Partiers in office have been doing and what normal Republicans would have been doing. Notice that the same applies to Democrats when they have been running the show. They use different rhetoric to justify their actions, but they end up doing the same things. If voting actually worked for anything except giving the illusion of legitimacy to our rulers, Reagan would have made it illegal.

          Let’s try a thought experiment. In Universe A, voting matters and we just keep getting fooled, taken in by fancy speeches, etc. In Universe B, the voting system is rigged in several ways, first by controlling what choices we are given and manipulation of the information we would base our choices on, and if that doesn’t work they just “decide” who wins, like with Bush in 2000. Which universe do we live in? How would we ever know?

          I say that it doesn’t matter, because both lead to the same fucked up situation we have now.

          Our political process looks like theater because it is. They are actors giving lines, engaging in fake conflicts and reconciliations, all to give us a good show. The system allows the legislative branch to pass laws no one has read…how can a system of checks and balances or voting cope with that? It allows legal bribery in the form of lobbying and campaign donations…how can voting do anything about that? It allows the president to write “executive orders” which become law, or excuse him and the government in general from following the law. This is not bad politicians per se, this is a bad, rigged system that was rigged from the first to favor some while exploiting others, all to the benefit of the people who have been in charge since the beginning…the rich.

          So when an entire system of government and economics, from the top to the bottom, is corrupt, rigged, and the interests of everyone who has any power to change that system lay in making sure things stay that way, how does continuing to play the game benefit anyone except the people at the top?

          Now, I don’t think the Occupy movement (you are aware that it’s not just Wall St., right? That it has spread to major cities all over the world now?) is going to get anything to change through persuasion. What I think the movement is doing is calling America’s bluff, the bluff of democracy and capitalism. Since the beginning, our rich and powerful recognized that tricking us with rhetoric was more effective than using totalitarian force. They had just experienced the recent uprising in the US, and they were carefully watching the French Revolution as well. They knew what made people revolt…and how to trick them into essentially governing themselves through social norms. But when that didn’t work, whether it was states trying to leave the Union during the Civil War (I’m not saying “slavery good”, I’m saying that if the populace can’t choose to no longer be a part of the “union” for whatever reason, then it’s not a union, it’s a kingdom with the illusion of being a republic), or workers trying to balance the scales of capitalism through unions, or citizens trying to prosecute their leaders for criminal behavior, out would come the force and guns. We currently live in a militarized police state, and 9/11 was exactly the justification our government needed to make sure we wouldn’t bother fighting for our civil liberties…because, of course, to do so labels you a terrorist, which then makes them free to disappear you to a prison camp somewhere. And no one can even ask if it happened afterward without themselves violating the law.

          Let’s reiterate that for emphasis: the government has taken upon itself the power to label anyone they want as a terrorist. Once they do so, any attempt to demand evidence, to oversee the investigation, or even to communicate with the person accused is illegal. These people get no trial, they are simply whisked away, and it’s illegal to inquire about them.

          Now, why don’t we live the totalitarian lifestyle we have been shown in so many movies and news reports, to go along with our totalitarian police state? Why can I write these words without fearing for my life? Because right now the bluff is holding…people like you continue to believe in the game. But the Occupy movement is calling the bluff and forcing us to become aware of just what we have aided and abetted our leaders in creating. Every arrest and brutalization of a peaceful protester, every contrast between how the co-opted Tea Party protests were treated vs. how OWS is treated, every law used by these militarized police to circumvent the rights clearly enumerated in the Constitution, is pulling back the mask and showing the monster underneath.

          Mark my words: if the OWS movement continues as it has, and continues to refuse to be redirected into “normal” channels or let themselves be co-opted by the Democrats, we will soon be seeing a Tiananmen Square situation. At some point, OWS will be declared a terrorist organization (it’s not like we can demand justification or proof of the people making that list), and the mass arrests, killings, and disappearings will begin. The world, and our population, will have no choice but to recognize the truth of the situation…and then real change will begin. Citizens will rise up and other nations will come in to stop a nation who presents a worse danger than Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Axis-era Japan all rolled into one.

          I’m sorry. I really wish I could believe that the techniques for causing change in our government taught to us in eighth grade social studies were effective, but a reasonably cursory glance of our history says they are not. People have been voting the whole damn time…yet exploitation has been the rule, not the exception. And why wouldn’t it be? The one thing the concept of “freedom” seems to really mean in this country is the freedom for those in charge, economically or through government, to be dicks. But hey, that’s what basing an entire way of life on greed will do to you.

          We need a revolution, then we need to organize a new system, perhaps based on the social democracies of northern Europe. They have the best average standard of living, the highest happiness index ratings, the least income disparity, better health care, and least amount of work-hours necessary in any modern nation. They have prioritized human relationships, enjoyment of life, and freedom over profits and it seems to be working really, really well. While it is feasible to transition the US to such a model, where “needs” are socialized and luxury goods are capitalized, but America is in denial that these nations even exist. Look at the constant refrain of how “socialism hasn’t worked anywhere it’s been tried” and “socialism inevitably leads to a totalitarian state”…they literally deny that the social democracies exist at all, and if anyone suggests that we may have something to learn from them, the authorities just float some jingoism and American Exceptionalism to shut it down. Back in 2008 when the crash first occurred, every mention of looking at those models was met by “America needs a uniquely American solution”, which is apparently just doing the same things that got us into this mess, just HARDER and MORE.

          So since such a transition is impossible and no method for effecting change in government is accessible by the average citizen, revolution is the only way. Whether it will be bloody or not is really a question of how effective the authoritarian brainwashing our military and police really is. Will our military turn its guns on the majority of the population? We have already seen that the police will, but they won’t be enough to truly quell us and are already being pushed to their limit by the existing protests. Give it another month to spread to a few hundred more cities and grow to even higher amounts of the population and we will see how things are going to go down.

          I can’t help look at our withdrawal of troops from Iraq with mixed feelings because of this. It seems like the timing is too perfect. We can hope that our own military would refuse such orders, but I don’t really believe that they will. This will most likely get very, very bad once the bluff is called completely, and thanks to our panic and fear of some enemy or another since WWII, I don’t know if our populace will win. They have an awful lot of guns and resources to work with. People like me, especially, whose only way to contribute is through our ideas and are unwilling to engage in violence except in self-defense, will be vulnerable.

          But I stand by what I said in the post…a story of the overthrow of a totalitarian (and technically fascist…fascism is the unification of government and corporate interests, just read Mussolini) government is a powerful tale, it’s not one we can live for long…we need a sequel, where the newly free and aware populace builds a new country, a story worth living in. The immediate future is easy to imagine…what comes next will require some serious work.


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