May 22, 2013
Our Delusions of Grandeur Will Save the World
Posted on Oct 17, 2011
It’s worth looking back at past youth movements. The radical student upsurge of the 1960s took place in a novel socioeconomic context. Higher education was expanded due to the postwar demand for technicians and researchers. Mass institutions of learning grew along with the economy. This growth led to conflict. Crowding, bureaucratization and paternalism aggrieved youths. Though they weren’t exactly proletarianized, capitalist development had created a potential enemy in students closely concentrated enough to facilitate their self-organization as political actors. They had plenty of spare time too.
The university has morphed since then. Student enrollment keeps increasing, but college life has become less communal. Forget common rooms; we have locks and laptops. New dorms are designed like individual apartments. The Princeton Review even factors in how spacious and private living accommodations are in its rankings. Forget rallies and marches; the best a student activist can expect from her peers is an e-signature on an online petition. Atomized, apolitical student life for an atomized, apolitical era. It’s a fitting corollary to the relationship students are made to feel toward their school’s administrations—as individual consumers of a product. Our collective identity as students has been stripped.
The new actions overcome this loneliness. Much has been made of the media’s role in fueling the Wall Street occupations. But for all the postmodern vestiges still stuck to many of the participants’ politics, there’s something remarkably old school about the approach. Create communal space, ask others to come join you, discuss social and political grievances together, and march around to disrupt the offending system’s usual operation. The Occupied Wall Street Journal is printed, passed around and discussed at the site. Print: the new avant-garde.
When the occupation started, doctrinaire leftists were quick to point out, among other things, the relative class privilege of the initial campers. This isn’t surprising. Class entitlement is the kind of conceit the Bolsheviks iced little Anastasia over, but this particular manifestation of it is a wellspring for the left. It’s not so much a desire to rise to a social position from where one can exploit others, but a feeling that an implicit social contract has been broken and redress is in order. The left-wing curmudgeons are overstating their case. The average student can expect 25 grand in debt and his or her fair share of menial jobs and unpaid internships during college. The “real world” after school offers much of the same. Of course, it does take a degree of privilege to “drop out” and decide to drum-circle it up in Liberty Plaza. Not having kids to feed and being young and in good health helps. Many also have mom and dad to fall back on if their financial situation gets too dire.
Yes, with few exceptions, “generational” analysis is bullshit pioneered by hacks and publicists. Cultural experience is never so broadly shared. But neoliberalism has seen the life prospects for a large portion of the population, maybe not quite 99 percent but close, decline. Maybe it took some obnoxious petit bourgeois individualists to spark the fight back.
“Idealism,” William F. Buckley wrote, “is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” But what happens when present reality can’t match our ideals? How about an attempt to create a new reality?
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