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Dissent and the Politics of Control


Political strategy in the West operates on contrived dualisms where an “in” group argues of the dangers that an out group poses and the “out” group argues that life under the in group is an ongoing disaster that will only end when the out group replaces the in group in the seat of political power (“change you can believe in”). That this storyline, to the extent that it reflects reality, has correlated with the multi-decade consolidation of power among an economic elite and the related impoverishment of the masses may offer insight helpful for effective dissent.

In response to disillusion over the perceived failure of the worldwide rebellions of 1968, and more broadly with state socialism in Europe following WWII, European philosophers in the 1970s and 1980s developed the idea of the “totalizing narrative,” the all-encompassing explanation of some aspect of the world that subsumes others. The totalizing narrative doesn’t reference an invariant fact of the world argue the philosophers, but is rather a delimited worldview that functions as an instrument of social domination, either hegemonic or explicit.

While originally put forward as broadly anti-ideological, some leading proponents of European postmodernism (Jacques Derrida) back-pedaled in their critique of the left when it became apparent that philosophical deference to small narratives helped feed the Reagan / Thatcher claim that atomistic capitalism avoided grand narratives by providing for individually derived wants. That it took the advertising industry nearly a century to produce these individually derived wants was not entirely unknown in academia.

Capitalism, atomistic or otherwise, is one example of a totalizing narrative in that it posits a human nature in which all actions derive from economic self-interest. In a capitalist economy dissent is put forward as a market failure, a complaint from the losers of a supposed fair game that they (the losers) simply lacked the skill to win. And should the dissenters have a point argue the theorists of capitalism, it would be recognized in the marketplace of ideas and justly rewarded if deemed to have merit.*

By subsuming criticism, totalizing narratives close off the possibility of dissent from outside of the closed system. Dissent either plays by the given rules or it is irrelevant in that there is no discursive context within which it can be understood. An example from recent decades is the charge of “class warfare” made by right-wing politicians that relies on the perception (totalizing narrative) that capitalism is a fair system in which class, to the extent that it might exist, derives from differentiated skills rather than social struggle. The idea of class inferred by the right is extrinsic to the discussion of capitalism because it reflects supposed facts of nature (differentiated skills) rather than the intrinsic facts of capitalism.

The question then is: does dissenting within a context controlled by others, the totalizing narrative (1) grant authority to the idea of control and to those particular people doing the controlling and (2) does doing so undermine the content of the dissent when the content includes a rejection of the politics of hierarchical control, of contrived dualisms? (Is the rejection of hierarchy limited to the complaint of those on the bottom of the existing hierarchy or is rejection from outside of the hierarchical system possible?)

The follow on question for would be dissenters is: do you dissent within the context controlled by those from whom you are dissenting or do you create your own context, even though doing so leaves you outside of the dominant conversation, and therefore outside of the technologies of accepted public discourse (television, mainstream newspapers)?

And so it is with this set of questions that some in the Occupy movement have refused to reduce dissent to the terms provided—to producing a list of demands, to making a set of concrete proposals, to creating a “leadership” structure that resembles hierarchical systems and to modes of action that confine dissent to a set of rules imposed by an external system of social control designed to shut effective dissent down. Is effective dissent even possible within a discursive / political system designed to exclude effective dissent?

What is inferred by recent essays on Occupy, some supportive, others less so, is that dissent is here and always a struggle for political / economic / social control. The absurdly violent and heavy-handed police response to the Occupy movement nationwide is evidence that the plutocrat-state sees only its hierarchical, violent, oppressive, controlling image in dissent. In that view the struggle is always for power and never against power.

With no intended irony, the Western discourse around political violence is that large-scale state violence targeting civilians is morally and politically acceptable but that small-scale non-state violence isn’t. (Should the lie that civilian deaths are accidental in state violence have resonance, please see “war of attrition” with respect to America in Vietnam and Central America). My point here is that the accepted discourse on political violence is self-serving nonsense. To argue within that discourse is to give credence to self-serving nonsense. Any real challenge to the idea of the use of political violence, either pro or con, might be better served by prying the discourse open rather than playing by the existing rules.

With history as a guide, ordinary Americans love unconscionable violence (example: Falluja) when it is committed against “others” and is favorably framed in terms of a cultural / political / economic / religious dualism, an opposition that places them on the inside and that finds its mirror in the very terms of totalizing discourses. Granting sincere aversion to violence on the parts of those advising the Occupy movement, it is primarily the fear of being politically marginalized that leads to the argument that the movement will be harmed by protester violence.

The inference behind this fear is that there exists a large group of people (ordinary Americans) who will both blindly accept the framing of political violence handed them by those they are one day expected to rebel against and who can also be swayed toward supporting the cause of dissent if the dissenters comport themselves according to the rules that place them on the “right” side of a political narrative defined by the plutocrat-state. Life is no doubt difficult, but forgive me if that seems like an impossible balancing act.

The only reason why so-called ordinary Americans might join a rebellion is if they see themselves on the outside of a social order designed for the benefit of others. And creating the conditions of would-be rebellion is the plutocrat-state, not would-be dissenters. Furthermore, while discourse certainly plays a role in how circumstances are perceived, it is the material conditions alone that make an existing order intolerable.

If the long-term unemployed, the outsourced, the imprisoned, the impoverished, the newly homeless, the long term homeless, those who have had their homes stolen by the banks, the discriminated against, the poor, the marginalized, the indebted, those who had their pensions stolen, those who are seeing the social programs that they paid for cut to fund military adventures abroad, those who did the bailing out, those without access to medical care, the polluted, the fracked, the invaded, the economic refugees and so on—if these people don’t perceive a problem then who are we to tell them that there is a problem? And if they do see a problem, are they not potential allies and not mindless pawns to be managed?

Either the material conditions exist for a broad-based rebellion or no rebellion will take place. The plutocrat-state and the institutions of power can be counted on to behave badly whether or not they feel threatened. There is no storyline too implausible for the mainstream media to put forward as fact. So why worry about what they are going to say?

Being clever and being complicit are different things. Again, the question is: how can we be different if we are the same? Only by stepping outside of the totalizing narratives of the plutocrat-state is true dissent possible. And the risk there is of an absence of control. If the goal is simply to exchange chairs, to take power rather than to destroy the very idea of power, then mainstream politics already has a role for you.

With neither romance nor naiveté, the opening that Occupy has provided is to try something different. The moment is likely fleeting. But take it from someone who was there (although a little kid) in 1968—the regrets for not taking it far enough far outweigh any others in my life. The way to fight the death and despair of the plutocrat state is with life, not with competing death and despair.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. 

*After spending a reported $37 million on his most recent re-election campaign, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg justified the eviction of Occupiers from Zuccotti Park with the chide that it was “now time to make their arguments in the marketplace of ideas,” ignoring that his own ideas only made it to the marketplace by way of his self-funded vanity press.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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