The Occupy protests galvanized a dormant spirit of American protest, but they have also prompted a certain amount of skeptical condescension. Even as the term “occupy” has shed its anticapitalist overtones and entered the vernacular as a zeitgeist-y term for the enthusiastic willingness to get involved with anything (“Occupy Wawa!” “Occupy this gym’s air conditioning!”), the protesters themselves have been subjected to trivializing trend pieces like “The Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street” that imply the protests are essentially about parading around for attention. They may say they have no demands, but that’s because it’s really just the same old demand: “Look at me!”
Are the occupiers just douchey hipsters, professional activist types, and far left outcasts, whose self-righteousness conveys contempt for others who let petty concerns like their family and their job inhibit their participation in protests? Sometimes I want to believe the worst about protesters because it would exempt me from having to do more. I let myself be persuaded by the argument that, as libertarian Economist blogger Will Wilkinson puts it, “the Occupy movement fails to take pluralism seriously.” That is, a “self-selecting community” of protesters with short-sighted arrogance believes that everyone in their right mind agrees with its methods and its message. This leads to tactics that alienate the “real” people who show up in polling figures, who live outside urban centers, and so on. I start to think that doing nothing will allow me to be real too.
My eagerness to dismiss the protests as so much ego and vanity speaks to a deep and pervasive cynicism about the political sincerity of the Left, and particularly middle-class leftists, who some would say have no legitimate reason to be complaining. The view that leftist protest is fundamentally inauthentic is a legacy of the youth movements of the 1960s, which were recast and denigrated as so much hippie hedonism. But it wasn’t the reactionaries on the Right who gave that interpretation its credibility and staying power; rather its broader plausibility has its roots in an intra-left debate about the role of lifestyle consumption in emancipatory struggle, a sort of proxy war in the fight over who can claim to be an organic intellectual (to use Gramsci’s term) and what exactly would constitute the genuine class composition of the revolutionary subject. Are the stupefied masses waiting for thought leaders to liberate them from their vulgar tastes and the pacifying, infantilizing culture that is administered to them? Or are the masses the only genuine, authentic people who can inhabit a different subjectivity, who can see beyond capitalism’s enticements and occupy a space beyond it?
Ever since culture became an industry, aggrieved critics have complained of the inauthenticity of cultural production and lamented the loss of genuine folk culture. Usually these complaints are paired with a sentimental nostalgia for folkways, which are held to generate culture as a byproduct of a communal life organically lived. As André Malraux described this putative golden age in a 1951 essay for the Partisan Review, “Instruments played real music then, for there was no other” (“Art, Popular Art and the Illusion of the Folk”). Then the culture industry reared its massifying, instrumentalizing, hegemonizing head, and in its ruthless pursuit of profit, it alienated creators and audiences alike from that holistically integrated world, depriving us of our right to a real culture that serves not Mammon but some innocent, spontaneously flourishing essence of the human species.
From that point of view, the problem with commercial art is that it breaks the more or less “natural” system of hierarchical taste that allows each social strata to enjoy itself comfortably without having to be self-conscious. Instead it foments aspirational dreams that fuse pleasure to social mobility and bravura displays of ripening taste, which, needless to say, these critics regard as inappropriate. Rather than permit us to enjoy the pleasures of the simple life, the culture industry imposes invidious comparison and tactical, conspicuous consumption on us, and we become connoisseurs of distinction, preoccupied with self-presentation rather than losing ourselves in aesthetic enjoyment.
The fear that social mobility generates a phony culture made entirely of status symbols leads this sort of critic to champion a stable system of taste that supposedly protects art from being merely about cultural capital. Dwight Macdonald’s “Midcult and Masscult” (1960) offers an especially clear example of this yearning: “If there were a clearly defined cultural elite here, then the masses could have their kitsch and the classes could have their High Culture, with everybody happy,” he writes. But unfortunately, for a “significant part of the population,” “the pattern of their cultural lives is ‘open’ to the point of being porous,” which, Macdonald claims, they find “confusing.” If only there were cultural sumptuary laws that would constrain each stratum to the enjoyments appropriate to it, just as servants were kept to their livery. Then no one would have to be confused: the folk would be folk again, a source of vicarious authenticity and an alibi for all the cultural strivers — and cultural critics — determined to refine their own tastes and perfect their connoisseurship.
For Macdonald, the fear of aesthetic chaos resolves into a contempt for middlebrow culture — predigested simulations of high culture that don’t require aesthetic training to appreciate but still convey an air of pseudosophistication and social betterment. He echoes Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, whose concerns about administered culture, commodified art, and mass stupefaction have struck other critics as equally elitist as Macdonald’s. Ellen Willis, in an obituary for Marcuse, highlights how high-minded defenses of high culture and condemnations of “thoughtless” consumerism mainly help police the boundaries of class:
What Marcuse had most obviously in common with many of his New Left children, or cousins, was the alienated snobbery of the middle-class intellectual. Classes that take money for granted are always horrified at the naïve delight of the “vulgar” nouveau riche in getting and spending. But a deeper, more complicated kind of class bias defined the relationship between the New Left and the rest of America. Marcuse and like-minded radicals simply assumed that their perception of social reality was more accurate than that of the average nonrevolutionary worker. It did not occur to them that in some ways the opposite might be true. Yet I think their one-dimensional view of American life, their obsession with consumer goods as the root of all evil, and their conviction that most people were satisfied robots had less to do with the objective workings of the system than with the way many middle-class intellectuals experienced themselves. Trapped in abstractions, cut off from a sense of their own autonomous desires, they projected their self-estrangement onto others.
“Middle-class intellectuals,” Ellis suggests, are so alienated by their complicity with consumer society that they have a hard time regarding the consumption of the lower class as anything other than passive, as conditioned by the blandishments that they themselves couldn’t resist.
The current crop of “New Left children” — many of whom serve as commercial tastemakers, cultural curators, lifestyle engineers, or other functionaries of the creative class — have inherited this self-estrangement. This can be seen clearly in the trajectory of the term hipster: those who castigate others with the label are among the most likely to be accused of hipsterism themselves. Members of this new cohort of middle-class intellectuals (or hipsters or the creative class or whatever you want to call them), defensive to the point of disavowal about their cultural privilege, are nonetheless all too aware of the calculated way they must respond to culture to protect the identity they struggle to project. Enmeshed in far more elaborate communications networks than their predecessors, their consumption choices can circulate instantaneously and far more widely, serving not only to distribute a constructed, branded self that can accrue value in circulation, but also to enhance the value of the cultural signifiers they have augmented with their attention. This cohort shares Willis’s lament that it has lost the pure, gut-level appreciation of pop culture and falls prey to nostalgia that other less mediated segments of society can still access a more “accurate” picture of social reality through their unadulterated responsiveness.
Thus the internecine debate over who can be a “genuine” revolutionary subject may evolve from the highbrow-lowbrow-nobrow arguments Macdonald was engaged in toward a preoccupation with who is corrupted by “prosumerism” (producing cool through conspicuous consumption). A romanticized class of untechnologized non-prosumers, unhipsters, are in danger of being transformed into a new authentic folk, whose social exclusion creative-class hipsters may misguidedly take to the streets to protect. The unhipsters become a reference point for a backward-looking ideal, and are used to implicitly recast emerging progressive politics as a yearning to regress to a simpler time, as though an absence of technology and a suppression of the plenitude of cultural production could solve everything.
Armed with this diagnosis, middle-class intellectuals are in danger of pushing inappropriate or irrelevant solutions. Paralyzed by self-criticism, hipsters sense their alienation, the hollowness of their constructed identity, and misrecognize it as the fulcrum of social resistance. Perhaps if we could get everyone to unplug from the administered culture that has placated us, we would transform the world with spontaneous justice and generalized, self-evident righteousness — the sort of spirit that sympathetic observers have recognized in the Occupy protests. That unselfconscious, unestranged spirit of resistance performs the same symbolic function that genuine working-class glee in pop-culture consumption seems to have done for Willis, and which traditional folk culture did for Macdonald; it anchors an ability to see the truth. The gritty occupiers will lead us out of our suburbanized plastic hassle of a life and into the streets to speak truth to power and turn crony capitalism and the finance oligarchy on its head. Our voices, buoyed by a sense of incipient emancipation, would be raised in a communal chorus for peace. Rather than opposing specific conditions within existing power structures, a new scene will be generated, one that is not phony but forged in genuine struggle with the cops alongside genuine crust punks. We will all be real once more.
But as the creative class well knows, its attention to anyone it recognizes as unhipsters would invariably saturate them with cool. And if the protests simply become incubators for cool — if they grow mainly because they redefine cool in terms of Occupy memes and types — are they really even protesting anything?
Occupy would seem to need a rigorous program of dehipster-fication to protect the purity of its revolution. But the matter is made more complicated by the political cross-currents generated by new technologies and the unevenly distributed enthusiasm for various forms of atomized participation they enable. As communication technology has become more intrusive and expansive, chances to transform society have, for some, come to seem inseparable from the more salient opportunities to transform the self. These technologies change the way the creative class conceives subjectivity — which becomes increasingly self-conscious and preoccupied with cultural-capital signifiers — and in the process create new temptations to romanticize those excluded, those who seem exempt from the self-branding traps social media set for us.
While social media enhance the possibility that the protests will grow, at the same time they allow the solidarity built there to be expropriated. It becomes fodder for what political theorist Jodi Dean has called communicative capitalism: an “economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many.” This kind of capitalism aims at completely drawing consumers into the process of production and innovation, into becoming prosumers. For techno-optimists, the subsumption of self-fashioning by capital — the ability to be heard as a prosumer by friends and corporations alike — meant the unheard people were finally being granted a voice in the everyday matters that affect their lives. It was the substance of revolution.
Not everyone was so optimistic. In fact, prior to Occupy some radical trends had identified this view as one of the critical problems with contemporary capitalism. The Coming Insurrection, a 2007 tract by French activists the Invisible Committee, argues that “producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” and claims that “it now becomes possible to sell oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes, for our relational talents, for our smile and our way of presenting ourselves.”
Though composed before the 2008 global financial crisis, the book is well-suited to the soul searching that followed. What The Coming Insurrection insisted — that “the catastrophe is not coming, it is here,” that “we are already situated within the collapse of a civilization” — now seems more than ever to actually be the case. The growth of the Occupy movement this fall translated that sentiment to a more American idiom. In the atmosphere fostered at Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country, one could dare to dream about local, distributed small-scale economies replacing globalized capitalism and multinational corporations. One could foresee bands of urban homesteaders clearing the rubble of the capitalist crisis. That is to say, one could imagine that others might actually be taking the Invisible Committee’s advice: Form de facto communes, stay out of exclusionary milieus. Work out barter deals outside the open economy. Learn how to make things again. Seek an internal exile, an invisibility. Maybe ordinary people, people who didn’t read social theory or even the newspaper, were about to follow by instinct.
But in the midst of Occupy utopia the technology of hyperindividualism remains. The Coming Insurrection notes the seductive power of the network to empower individual nodes while preventing the shared collective investment in an actual society:
To call this population of strangers in the midst of which we live “society” is such an usurpation that even sociologists dream of renouncing a concept that was, for a century, their bread and butter. Now they prefer the metaphor of a network to describe the connection of cybernetic solitudes, the intermeshing of weak interactions under names like “colleague,” “contact,” “buddy,” “acquaintance,” or “date.” Such networks sometimes condense into a milieu, where nothing is shared but codes, and where nothing is played out except the incessant recomposition of identity.
This identity-building project has the extra benefit for capital of producing a self that is always already alienated, so there remains no “I” that can recognize what has gone wrong. In the identity-formation process, consumerist capitalism hijacks our will to be autonomous, rooting it in the same procedures that generates its codes. We make ourselves in the same way we breathe life into brands through “co-creation.” The very possibility of association and affiliation are under threat; that we might get together with other people for any reason other than to parade our identity and measure our influence has been undermined by the mediated, technologized situations in which our social interaction occurs. A chief function of social networks is to allow the value of sociality to be extracted, even the sociality of protest.
The middle-class Left, then, would have good reason to distrust the seemingly simple pleasures of consumerism, à la Macdonald. Acutely aware that their subjectivity is inescapably capital, they know that consumption can never really be about pure, personal, private pleasure but is always about positioning and status. But they still yearn for a guilt-free consumerism. Poor and working class people, by dint of their uncreative position in the economy, seem free from prosumerism, which prompts the hipster to envy their naïve ability to bypass the production of authenticity. But this in turn makes their consumption especially productive of sign value — it seems so genuine that hipsters feel especially attracted to appropriating it, as Mark Greif argued in “What Was the Hipster?”
One might expect the Occupy protests to present an alternative to fetishized individuality. If capitalism produces the sort of subjectivity that allows it to perpetuate itself — if we learn to become selves and fulfill ourselves only by adopting capitalism’s incentive scheme — then resistance must ultimately be a matter of disrupting that subjectivity and creating a time-space where a different kind of subjectivity can be fostered. But the Occupy protests have taken place in the midst of what sociologists Nathan Jurgenson and P. J. Rey have called “ambient documentation,” where simple presence in any environment guarantees that one’s behavior will be recorded. As a result, they argue, “our present is increasingly lived as a potential document; the present is now always a future past.” We can no longer define “natural behavior” as what we would do if unobserved. We can’t escape the ability to shape the document we create for the world, we can’t help but equate such documents with our identity, and we can’t avoid knowing about the potential value of our deeds in crafting it. In this sense, the marketing fantasies about consumer co-creation and prosumerism have come true; virtually all our efforts to try to be cooler are automatically recaptured in communications networks and recirculated to generate more value. What goods can’t we customize and enhance to better express who we really are? Given social-media technology, what sort of protest could be immune from such repurposing?
Cameras were ubiquitous at the Occupy sites. This assured that egregious acts of police repression were well-documented, but it also gave the protests a carnivalesque component, protest-performers endlessly posing for waves of tourists consuming the spectacle. In offshoots like “Occupy Xmas,” the quest for personal cool also threatens to trump the desire for solidarity. Occupy Xmas risks the same pedantic condescension for the holiday-shopping masses that Willis’s middle-class intellectuals had for the lower classes. Blindly confident that they will come across as playful liberators rather than bullying Grinches, some Occupy Xmas-ers planned to, among other things, “dress up as ‘consumer zombies’ and wander around shopping centers to protest what they see as the numbing effect of conspicuous consumption,” according to a Wall Street Journal report. Such action seems unlikely to convince its targets to change their ways, but it has already proved effective in garnering press coverage for organizers.
From within the heart of ambient documentation, it can seem especially urgent to assume that the poor are not addressed as prosumers so that their consumption can remain unalienated and serve as a model, as proof that such a thing can be. Aesthetically, the protests already relied on the evocation of ersatz folkways — think drum circles — to help guarantee their righteousness. If the perceived “folk” can continue to consume purely and innocently, their authenticity can continue to be harvested and refined into cultural capital by self-hating, now with an alibi steeped in protests on their behalf. Their genuineness offsets the posturing of everyone else.
The fantasy of a non-prosuming sector in whose name we struggle only perpetuates what must be discarded in social upheaval. Social movements can no longer promise us chances for a more creative life — that revolution has come and been co-opted. The goal of boundless self-expression plays into the hands of the consumerist powers that be, which seductively amplify the quest for recognition into individualistic self-aggrandizement. Instead, the Occupy protests may, at last, offer an opportunity for a new kind of subject to emerge, one that is collective in character and can exist comfortably in parallel with a private, individual self.
But while the protests would ideally allow for reshaping subjectivity, they cannot be about policing authenticity or purifying consumer behavior. What accusations of hipsterism or inauthenticity often amount to are pleas to preserve the private ownership of a resource — identity — that could be held in common. That is the pitfall of green consumerism or personal boycotts or other heroic stances that always resolve into one’s having improved one’s own cultural capital in some way without making much of a difference in the operation of the world. In fact, there’s an incentive to hope that the world continues to be bad and wrong so that one’s own gestures stand out as courageous and valuable. Even if there were a virtuous cycle of oneupmanship in terms of good deeds (“everyone drives a Prius, so now I need to go one step further and put solar panels on my roof”), the underlying structure of competitive individualism, so vital to capitalism, would be preserved, and along with it all the exploitation and Hobbesean mutual suspicion it justifies. It then becomes easy to mistake winning status as virtue, an elision capitalism counts on for its ideological hegemony.
Capitalism, particularly with its current emphasis on media and communications as a source of profit, prompts us to regard the public and private self as the same individualistic identity, negating the space for a civic persona. (This is Richard Sennett’s argument in Fall of Public Man.) Protest can allow for a public persona to be reclaimed through the process of struggle, which then becomes not a hardship or an ascetic procedure of self-effacement but a source of deep pleasure. This is why unlikely people report being energized by General Assemblies, which in the abstract sound like tedious nightmares. The process becomes constitutive of a civic, collective self, which is liberating — it allows the private self to go private again, releasing us from the anxieties of ostentatious displays of identity. The use of social media is liberated from the personal-brand-building bullshit and becomes more a matter of transmissions that orchestrate solidarity among politically engaged groups. In a sense, the personal ceases to be political; everyday life in public begins to be lived in a civic space rather than a commercial one, and private everyday life starts to escape exploitative capture.
Ideally, the protests will usher the personal brand off the stage and supplant it with the emergence of a collective, civic subjectivity, held in common and in parallel to a private self, whose economic significance as a prosumer becomes more thoroughly anonymized and depoliticized. Paradoxically enough, I hope these highly public and publicized protests are actually about the recreation of privacy.