In response to a recent blog, one reader commented:
There has been recent discussion of underlying similarities between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, and a ‘compare and contrast’ piece on Beckerian lines would be most helpful.
Although both TP and OWS spring from sources deep within the American political psyche, the easy equation of them as simply Right/Left mirrors of each other is wrongheaded and intellectually lazy. I may come back to the Tea Party again in a future piece, but for now, I want to say something about the Occupy! movement. I do think that Ernest Becker’s ideas, among others, help us get an interpretive handle on the Occupy! phenomenon. It should be noted that Becker was not very concerned with analysis of contemporary political movements and current events. Although all of his works were written in the tumultuous years between 1960 and 1974–years of civil rights actions, the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, massive war protests, the rise and fall of hippies, yippie, New Lefties and more–Becker hardly mentions in his writings what was going on in the streets or even of political protest actions in which he himself participated. He did, however, create a body of material that contains a relatively sustained and coherent political philosophy. Drawing together the strands of Becker’s political philosophy (found most clearly in his book, The Structure of Evil) we can outline an analysis of the Occupy! movement that is consistent with Becker’s ideas.
Becker mainly viewed social and political life as dynamic, pendular movement. He was steadfastly ‘anti-utopian’ in the sense that he refused to think at all in terms of models for social and political perfection. Human beings are restless. They are selfish. They get bored. Any model of utopian perfection will have short and limited appeal, and social experiments designed to implement any such model will have to rely increasingly on violent coercion to keep people in line. This was not where Becker’s interests lay.
What Becker did write about, however, was what he called an Ideal/Real vision of democratic society. This is a dynamic vision in which it is assumed that movement would occur in the society over time, between the generations, and within that society’s political groups. In this vision, we can place factors such as individual freedom, enterprise and risk on one end of a continuum, and communal good, traditions of mutuality and security on the other end of that continuum. At any given time, a working democratic society will reflect the relative balance of these factors along the continuum. The goal of political society is not to establish once and for all the ‘correct’ balance of these factors, nor even necessarily to privilege the ‘perfect middle.’ Rather, it is the goal of political society to foster institutions of change that facilitate continued pendular movement along the continuum. When (as will surely happen) the society has moved so far toward the communal end of the continuum that individual freedom, creativity and initiative are routinely quashed, the institutions of democratic society will foster movement of the political pendulum in the other direction. When (as will surely happen) the society has moved so far toward the individualist end of the continuum that traditions of trust, mutuality and protection of the common good are routinely trampled, the institutions of democratic society will foster movement of the political pendulum in the other direction. In a good society, the pendulum is always in motion. Otherwise, social stagnancy occurs.
In European democracies, at least since the 1950s, the center ‘set point’ has always been somewhat further toward the communal end of the continuum compared to the USA. European democracies were created in the aftermath of war and destruction, when communal action was absolutely necessary for social survival and political revival. The US democracy, in contrast, was created in the context of a colonial frontier, in which self-reliance and the ability to “strike out on one’s own” formed the fundamental gestalt of our democratic self image. Nevertheless, even with these differences, it can be seen that in well-functioning democracies, social and political institutions facilitate change and movement along this basic continuum.
With this principal analysis in mind, it does seem clear to me that after 30 plus years of extolling John Wayne and John Rambo, greed-is-good free market Libertarianism, Ayn Rand and ending welfare, reduction of the social safety net, privatization of the common wealth, and increasingly abject and piratic gambling with other people’s money in the financial sectors, America has hit the peak of its social and political pendulum. The extremes of the wealth gap is a strong symptom indicating that mutuality, trust and the assumptions of our basic social contract are being heavily eroded. If we are, indeed, a viable democratic society, our social institutions should be kicking in heavily to move the pendulum back in the other direction.
I suggest that much of the enthusiasm felt in 2008 sparked by Barack Obama’s rhetoric of “hope and change” stemmed directly from the sense that yes, our democratic institutions are functioning as they should in this context. Watching this administration falter and fail on so many fronts to move the pendulum has been a jarring wakeup call, a forced recognition that the ‘normal’ democratic institutions of our society have been coopted and undermined. An electric surge of awareness that something is seriously awry has charged through the populace in these recent years, that our democratic institutions are more vulnerable than had been thought and are being directly threatened by big-money interests bribing our system representative. Therefore, if we are the get the pendulum moving again, that is, if we are to come to the rescue of the cherished institutions of our democratic society, it will have to be accomplished with a very hefty element of working outside of the ‘normal’ channels. Hence, when a small, lightly organized and scraggly group of people showed up in Zuccotti Park in NYC, to “occupy Wall Street,” a blast of recognition shot through an already-prepared populace, and quickly became a clarion call to action. Occupy! groups are mushrooming across the country, and connecting with other democratic movements around the globe.
Were he a young person today, would Ernest Becker be grabbing a sleeping bag and heading for the nearest Occupy! location. I somewhat doubt it. He understood himself as less an activist than an intellectual. But I am quite sure he would admire the Occupy! activists and, in the current political moment, would see them as generally on the right side of history. My view is that that view is the correct view!