Continued from the introduction here.
So much has happened in the past couple weeks that this article has evolved a bit from what it was originally intended to be, and as such it’s taken a bit longer to get out. Here’s the next chunk, which serves as the first half of my discussion on the patterns that have shaped our cultural narrative the past decade.
Before we can get down to what the Occupy movement is about and how it may serve to transform American society, it would be useful to clarify just where we are today and how we’ve gotten here. Reading comments on Occupy-related news stories across the web has made it clear to me that’s a conversation we still need to have as a nation. (By the way, I don’t suggest reading those comment threads if you value spelling, grammar and critical thinking skills. You might just as well wander into Craigslist’s rants and raves for that high level of political commentary.)
It would be easy to get lost in the details at this point in the conversation. We all seem to agree that things have gone rather southward in this country, but of course the hard specifics of what and why are exactly the sort of thing that the Occupy movement is here to help us hammer out. Instead of belaboring hard specifics, I’d like to address the patterns that seem to have emerged over the past century of American history, the themes and memes that have come to dominate our collective awareness and which have shaped our cultural conversations. Again, having this conversation on a more detailed level and hashing out solutions seems to be one of the major long-term purposes of the Occupy movement—but let’s open that conversation with some broad generalities and see where it goes from there. We have to start somewhere, right?
That there are recognizable patterns of human behavior (both on the individual and collective levels) arising over the course of the last hundred years should come as no surprise. Humans love patterns. Our brains seem wired to make sense of what the existentialists would tell us is a senseless Universe. It’s the ability to arrange seemingly disparate events into patterns that allows us to learn languages, discern new scientific principles and realize alcohol and hangovers are probably related; this ability is also the root of superstition, racism and a whole host of other problems when it backfires.
When the human brain recognizes a pattern—and, it seems, whether the brain in question is conscious of having done so or not—there’s a chance it may internalize that pattern; the new pattern may be integrated it into one’s worldview so it shapes one’s future perceptions (becoming a “bias”); it may also act as a force to shape one’s actions, causing one to fall into a certain pattern of behavior (which we call a “habit”). For example, if I internalize the pattern “the Republicans are always right,” I am likely to exercise a bias toward believing in a Republican worldview and a habit of voting for them in the elections. (And so there’s no confusion on my biases, the same goes for “the Democrats are always right,” which is just as distasteful.)
Why is the human brain so quick to recognize patterns and integrate them into our thinking? One possible answer from an evolutionary anthropologist’s point of view is that it’s easy to imagine an evolutionary advantage to that behavior. When the patterns that coalesce in our brains like so much neurological Jell-O lead to constructive outcomes, they can be damn useful to an individual’s survival and chances of mating. I suspect this ability is what has spurred homo sapiens to become the dominant form of sentient life on this planet; I’m fond of saying that creativity is the only true genius, and the better part of creativity is recognizing patterns and figuring out new applications for them (and by this I don’t mean “creativity” in the liberal arts sense alone; higher level mathematics, engineering, theoretical physics and programming, for example, are all creative endeavors). The problem we humans run into is that these patterns, which we’re too often not aware of having integrated into our thinking and habits, can just as often lead to destructive outcomes.
We could debate over why these patterns have established themselves in our collective psyche if they’re so destructive. That these patterns have been comfortable in the short run seems a likely culprit; though the admission stings, we modern Americans are not, by and large, a society given to patience, thrift or stewardship of resources (though this in itself may be a recent pattern; ask your grandparents). We want what we want (though what that may be changes as frequently as we notice the next shiny bauble dangled in front of us), and we want it now (and if we can put it on credit so we don’t have to pay for it right now, all the better).
Moreover, we’ve been internalizing these patterns for so long that it’s difficult to imagine our civilization functioning differently without falling apart, thus the nihilistic “nothing will ever change, so to hell with it” attitude that has taken told of so many Americans. These patterns seem to combine in an overarching narrative of what America “is,” a stream of memes fed to us when we’re young through the brain-numbing conformity factories we call the American public education system; that narrative is reinforced by the mainstream media, which is owned by the 1%, who have political and financial stakes in that narrative remaining unchanged; these patterns influence our interactions within our peer groups, determining not only whom one associates with but also which ideas about what “is” one is exposed to on a regular basis, even absent the influence of schools or media.
So just what are the patterns that have brought us here? I’d like to address three for the time being. There are certainly others, but again, we have to start somewhere, and for the sake of generating conversation, I’d like to be brief.
First we have the economic pattern of recent American history—which really comes down to a matter of using “bubbles” to keep the economy afloat from one crisis to the next; the impression I get is that the people at the top have always known our economic system has no long-term sustainable future, but they’ve done a hell of a job over the past century keeping that fact quiet. The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, exposed how precarious the financial health of this nation really was, and I might argue that we never truly recovered from its effects; never since has the economy been allowed to stand on its own feet. Instead, corporations have become America’s fattest welfare queens, with the government and Wall Street ever colluding to find newer and more direct means of pumping taxpayer money into the economy as the situation’s become more desperate and the American dollar has consistently lost its value over the decades.
The earliest examples of this propping up of our otherwise dysfunctional economy via bubbles was the New Deal and World War II, the latter of which gave rise to the military-industrial complex, just as President Eisenhower warned in his unfortunately unheeded farewell address to the American people. The military budget excesses of the Cold War kept industry going fairly strong in the United States for a few decades, though the ability of this financial band-aid to stop our economy’s inevitable hemorrhaging didn’t last, and now a great deal of our annual national budget (read: tax revenue) goes toward preventing the military-industrial complex from collapsing (anywhere from 20%, using numbers the federal government admits are manipulated, to over 50%, under claims by anti-war activists who are including war-related expenses such as interest still being paid on past wars, DHS funding and veteran’s benefits); in short, one of the earliest short-term solutions to preventing economic meltdown has essentially become the primary long-term purpose of our federal economy. It should come as no surprise then that, though the United States last officially declared war in World War II, the nation has been in a constant state of warfare at one place or another in the world since that time, with no sign of ever stopping until the cash stream it takes to keep this insatiable Ares drunk runs dry. So long as a substantial portion of the United States’ economy relies on the creation and sales of weapons—so long as this most violent form of corporate welfare remains the backbone of our national body—it would seem there will always be another enemy to use those weapons against.
Of course, the military-industrial complex is just one example of the way bubbles have been created to keep our otherwise dysfunctional economy afloat. Another, related example would be the prison-industrial complex, through which many of the victims of our nonsensical system are locked in cages and pressed into slave labor for the profit of private corporations (the same corporations that spend millions on lobbying for ever-stricter laws and longer sentences each year—for some odd reason I doubt that’s a coincidence). The war on (some) drugs is a particularly grisly example of this bubble’s effect on society as a whole. Whatever one’s stance on personal drug use, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that drug prohibition increases crime and violence in society instead of decreasing it—as if there was any doubt of that after the disaster that was Prohibition—so why does the federal government continue to pursue a strategy of criminalization, punishment and incarceration instead of treating addiction as the health issue Obama’s own drug czar admits that it is? One begins to suspect that logic and compassion go out when the window when it’s necessary to keep a bubble such as the prison-industrial complex from popping.
Still, the real trick has been the creation of a succession of small bubbles over the decades through the manipulation of consumer trends. After all, as a resident of the United States of America, that’s what you are—the people running this country don’t see you as a person, nor as a citizen, but as a consumer, a human life with no purpose save to buy, to use, to throw away and to do it all over again until you hit the grave. Every year (or less) there’s a new product you need to replace another you already had, some new way for the money you traded your labor for to make it back to the same corporations that gave that money to you, except at reduced value; as the years wane, one feels like one is caught in a complex form of the quick change scam. In short, you are trading away the minutes of your life for the same cheap plastic crap you spend your life producing and/or selling for the 1%, and doing so is regarded today as the highest form of patriotism.
And why not? As Victor Lebow pointed out in 1955, consumerism—the constant scrambling from one bubble to the next in the form of the media-manufactured craze for the hot new Christmas toy; the rush to upgrade to the latest phone, which makes the one from last year obsolete; the need to replace perfectly good clothes that the magazines and TV shows tell one have suddenly gone out of fashion—is the glue that holds our post-Great Depression economy together. Unless people continue to consume without thought for the future, and do so at an exponential rate, the economy will crash faster than you can say “Dale Earnhardt.” There are a number of obvious problems with consumerism—the way it devalues human life and relationships in favor of “stuff” and its impact on the environment, for example—but more to the point, from a purely pragmatic point of view, there comes a point when trying to keep a fundamentally broken economy going by selling cheap goods to “consumers” who, thanks to inflation and the stagnation of real wages, are able to consume less and less every year, becomes a bit like trying to hang paper-mache baskets full of bowling balls from the ceiling.
These are of course simply examples of the larger pattern that emerges the more one examines the economic history of the United States over the past century; I’m pointing out this pattern to encourage a wider dialogue about the fundamental brokenness of the American economy, and to suggest in my roundabout way that the Great Recession is yet another instance of this pattern rather than an isolated incident, the result of the people who run this country tossing money at yet another bubble that they knew damn well would pop some day. This sort of thing has happened before; on a smaller scale, this sort of thing is engineered to happen all the time through planned obsolescence; if left to their own devices, the 1% will see that it happens again, and you can bet that if they’re still in charge when it does, they’ll get off scot-free for it again, too.
There are two more patterns I want to talk about–our tendency to rush to “solutions” that feel good but don’t really deal with the problem at hand, and our tendency to complain about problems without ever doing anything about them–but they can wait until next time. This bit’s already long and overdue as it is!