One of the human species’ defining traits may be our need to find meaning. We are born into a world that seems devoid of objective purpose, yet we strive all the same to create and express subjective values, understanding, one hopes, that these senses of meaning are personal and not necessarily universal. All the same, as social animals, we seem driven to find common ground, to generate ideas around which we can build our societies and not only survive, but thrive.
Toward that goal, we fashion what become the dominant memes of our societies—we labor to express our individual and collective answers to the question “What’s it all about?” through philosophy and religion, through science and art, comedy and drama. Government, in the modern Western sense, seems to be (at least in theory) an attempt to codify what we hope are the best of these memes, to fairly secure our individual and collective liberty and happiness. Yet government, like any group or concept, remains a non-entity, incapable of generating meaning; so too, the Occupation movement cannot in and of itself create or define the purpose of its own existence—that task is left to us, the individuals who represent the 99%. The weary march of history has set us with the task of answering the question, “What’s this all about?” And until we can give solid answers to that question, as individuals and as a community, we lack the agency to create and control our nation’s future.
One tactic we may employ toward discovering that meaning is an examination of the circumstances that have brought us all here, for when we consider the state of our nation and world today, a pattern seems to become clear. We citizens of America have been supplied with meanings from the top down our entire lives.
We have been taught that the path to happiness and fulfillment is work (or perhaps the colorful pieces of paper we receive in exchange for that work). Even now, in the face of our economic system’s inevitable collapse, many of our fellow citizens fearfully demand more 9-to-5 jobs to replace the ones they’ve lost. We are like oxen who have spent our lives pulling yokes through rocky fields, and now that the yokes are disappearing, many seem to think the major problem of the day is that the yokes have been taken from their shoulders instead of the fact that bearing the hated yokes has been the only way they’ve known to survive. This is a result of the Protestant work ethic, which is a meme that has been used to reduce a once free people into serfs and make them feel guilty and lazy should they question its validity.
We have been taught that justice means being unforgiving and hard, and even when violent crime has been on the decline for decades we are sending more of our fellow citizens to prison than any other industrialized Western nation. Many of these prisons are owned and operated by private corporations, which turn a profit from locking human beings in cages and subjecting them to slave labor. The corporations that run these prisons are an active lobbying force, bribing legislators and governors so they will enact ever-stricter laws with ever-more-draconian sentences. This is the prison-industrial complex, and what it means is this: if corporations can make better quarterly profits by treating you like an animal than they can treating you like a human being, they’ll turn on you faster than a crowd going after the Elephant Man.
Of relation to the prison-industrial complex is the so-called war on drugs. Now of course we’re not talking pharmaceuticals—those are profitable, and pharmaceutical companies are happy to bribe their ways into legal legitimacy. Nor are we talking drugs that are convenient for the one percent—caffeine and nicotine, which provide temporary boosts to focus and energy, and so help the serfs increase the bottom line; or alcohol, which dulls the wits and often makes the drinker complacent. When one examines our nation’s drug policies, we seem to see two categories of illegal drugs emerge. The first is composed of substances like cocaine, heroin, meth—substances that destroy the mind and body, making the user unable to work, unable to function as a serf to enrich our corporate lords and ladies. These are horribly destructive substances, on both the individual and social levels, but instead of treating people’s addictions to these substances as the health issues they are and getting addicts the treatment they need, the one percent shuffles them into the prison-industrial complex, where they can be profitably punished for daring not to be so-called “productive members of society.” The second category of illegal drugs is psychoactive substances such as cannabis and LSD. These are mind-expanding compounds that cause the user to question social conventions, that encourage the kind of against-the-norm thinking that challenges the status quo—substances that have the potential to help their users break free of the psychic chains wrapped round their wills by the decades of propaganda crammed into their craniums by the government-run public education system and the popular media. Make no mistake—laws against these latter substances come down to a matter of thought-crime legislation. Substances like cannabis are illegal, not because they’re potentially harmful, but because the one percent doesn’t want the 99% to have the kinds of feelings, thoughts and ideas they’re liable to have when they’re stoned.
We have also been taught that to be good citizens, we must support our nation’s military endeavors. We have been conditioned to support our troops—yet in the present, that most often seems to mean remaining silent while the government throws away the lives of our men and women in uniform in meaningless and endless wars of aggression and conquest, all so the one percent can seize the resources of other peoples. To question this practice is to have one’s patriotism called into question. Even now, with our nation bankrupt and our military already several times the size of any other on Earth, there are those who want to increase our defense spending, to start new wars over trivial matters, and why? Because, as President Eisenhower tried to warn us in his farewell address, war is profitable, and today it is easily sold to a public raised on action movies full of machismo and pretty explosions. This is the military-industrial complex, and perhaps more than any other force or idea, it has shaped American history for almost a century now, with no sign of relenting.
These are a sampling of the dominant values of modern American society—these are the meanings we have been instructed from childhood to build our lives and perceptions around. This movement began on Wall Street—and of course, for Wall Street is the physical embodiment of these values; it is the body which these ghosts and others have possessed; it is a symbol, yes, but also the corporeal stigmata of our heretofore mostly unquestioned faith in what we have been brainwashed our entire lives to believe is the American way.
Perhaps we have come together because we recognize that the traditional American political process as it now stands is no longer capable of addressing the nefarious combination of greed and incompetence that Wall Street symbolizes—for is there any doubt left that the major function of both the Republicans and the Democrats is to maintain the status quo? And our courts are no better—for though the original purpose of the Supreme Court was to watch the watchmen, today it seems to be staffed wholly by the watchmen as well. As a result, even with the right to vote, run for office and file suit against the government, we 99% are effectively (though unofficially, and therefore legally) disenfranchised.
So we come again to the issue of meaning, to the question I’ve seen raised by the media and by comments on messageboards and blogs these past few weeks: Why are we here? What’s this all about? I can give you the beginning of my own answer—I am here because I have seen the results of the one percent’s values—and their values have no value.
Yet that realization is not a solution to the ills that plague our nation. Knowledge is not action. Our occupation is a symbol. As Jung explained, symbols are vital to the functioning of the human consciousness in its search for greater meaning. We all understand the role of symbols because we live in an age of icons and brands. Symbols sell us hamburgers, and cars, and belief systems. But a symbol is not enough to change the world.
In the 1960’s, my parent’s generation thought they would change the world—but they were soon divided, and though they made some headway against the oppressors of their time and won a few meaningful victories I don’t mean to disparage, they left the essential political, social and financial establishments intact, and the one percent has used the subsequent decades to gradually roll back many of the gains they made. If we settle to leave the Occupation movement as a mere symbol, if we give up our agency in exchange for a more comfortable yoke as they did, we’ll find ourselves, like so many baby-boomers find themselves now, looking back forty-odd years and wondering where the moment went when we were so sure we had the power over our own futures finally, firmly in our grasp. We will have failed ourselves and the generations that come after us.
Why am I here? I’m here because I believe the time has come for a complete social and political transfiguration in this nation. What is the end result of that transfiguration going to look like, and how are we going to bring it about? That’s what I’m here to discuss with all of you. This is the time for that crucial conversation—and once we’ve had that discussion, the time for action will follow. I can’t tell you what the future looks like yet—I can’t tell you what the ultimate meaning of this movement will be in these weeks of its infancy—but I do know that defining that meaning is up to the 99%, and together, we will prevail.