“I am an anarchist – don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” So brayed Johnny Rotten, singer of the seminal punk band the SexPistols. Dear Mr. Rotten, punk may be dead, but have we got a new movement for you! It’s called Occupy Wall Street, and its members have spent the past couple of months playing drums, mugging for the cameras, disrupting traffic, yelling at rich people, and sporadically toying with the idea of figuring out what they want. One rightly doubts the prospects for a movement that can’t muster a manifesto; OWS seems determined to slide into the river of history without making a ripple. Of course, some are more sanguine about Occupy’s future. The radical anthropologist David Graeber argues that the lack of concrete demands is actually a virtue. OWS, he says, is no mere reform movement. It is about “creating a vision” of a new, radically different society. The occupation is a worldwide revolution, currently in fetal stage. But no, actually, it isn’t.
The occupation will certainly be televised, at least for awhile, but Graeber’s revolution will almost certainly not be realized. 1968 was a very, very long time ago. Revolution is a young generation’s game, and the vast majority of my peers, the children of the baby boomers, are not willing to play it. And why should we be? Our parents, the student radicals of the sixties, once seemed poised to create a brave new world. One based, they said, on generosity, equality and openness. They ended up changing a great deal, it’s true – sexual mores and attitudes towards authority, for instance.
But by the time they had children, the Berkeley radicals whom Czeslaw Milosz denounced as “spoiled children of the bourgeoisie” had finished their degrees, gotten respectable jobs, and enshrined themselves in McMansions. The much-maligned “system” remained largely unchanged, for both good and ill. And yet, the boomers’ exhilarating adolescence left them ill prepared for the labors of responsible adulthood. They slid into the seats of power – still clad in jeans – and borrowed their society into the most opulent destitution the world has ever known. Our parents have bequeathed us a staggering public debt, a crumbling infrastructure, and a deep-seated skepticism about our ability to change the world.
So what’s a radical movement to do? If my generation distrusts revolutionary ideals, and OWS can’t produce any practical demands, what will be its driving motivation? The answer, for now, is stenciled on a thousand poster boards: shared resentment. If the occupiers don’t know what they want, they’re pretty sure they know who’s preventing them from getting it – the wicked, omnipotent 1%. But such self-righteous finger pointing is too easy. Our actual problems are much more pervasive and entrenched.
In his landmark book “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, the sociologist Daniel Bell argues that the old capitalist virtues of thrift, patience and self-sacrifice, already wobbling during the post-war consumer boom, were dealt a gradual coup de grace by the baby-boomers. Discipline and delayed gratification did not sit well with the former flower children.
This same group went on, with the kindest of intentions, to raise a generation enthralled with their own boundless potential, who experience personal limitation as an injustice. My generation has come of age believing that each of us is entitled to our choice of the material and spiritual fruits of Western Civilization. Advertisers, politicians, preachers and professors tell us how happy and successful we deserve to be, and lenders line up to finance our purchase of the good life. But for an increasing number of us, this life lies listless beneath a heap of frustration and debt – useless degrees, unaffordable mortgages, ballooning credit card balances. This is the product that was sold to us, we bought it, and now we’re paying for it. We in the 99% are right to be angry. But if we want to make things better, we must reject the myth of our own innocence. Predatory lending, insider trading and other crimes of “the 1%” are indeed vicious, but they bear a family resemblance to the vanity and greed of ordinary, over-grasping consumers. Hedge fund managers, car mechanics, and literature majors are all susceptible to a culture of reckless self-indulgence. Bernie Madoff merely manifests this culture in extremis.
The youthful occupiers of Wall Street may think that they want to repair what’s broken in our society, but few of them understand what needs fixing. What most of them want is merely to rein in the Madoff’s of the world. This is a worthy goal, and I hope they can produce some effective policy proposals. But such political pruning cannot by itself destroy the roots of our problems. It will leave us always hacking at the next, more ingenious, Bernie Madoff.
The truly valuable transformation would be more cultural than political, and also more personally demanding. It would involve a new embrace of old-fashioned virtues. It would require us to accept the fact that we are finite, that self-sacrifice and compromise are necessary parts of a good life. It would require a willingness to sometimes forego, or at least delay, the pleasures of the sexiest degrees, the hippest clothing or the latest iPods. But it would also help to solidify the ground that is necessary for a thriving society. We say we want a revolution, but is my generation ready to occupy this ground? Not yet, I fear. Might we be in ten or fifteen years’ time? We, and our children, had better hope so.
Ian Marcus Corbin is a Ph.D candidate in philosophy at Boston College.