Existential Due Diligence

17 October 2011


A series of protests emerging throughout the industrialized nation-states of the world and tagging themselves with the label “Occupy …” (insert a local place name for the ellipsis), have been the focus of much media coverage and political comment. Some in the US have opined that this occupation movement represents a left-of-center groundswell that is the mirror imagine of the right-of-center “Tea Party” movement. Both are thoroughly populist movements that have emerged outside the mainstream of the (moribund) two party system, and they share much in the condemnation of political and financial elites. Some outside the US have compared the “Occupy” protesters to the “Arab Spring” protest movements that continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. These latter are also genuinely populist movements, and so there is some superficial similarity.

In populist political movements, ideology takes a back seat. It would be very difficult to discern the precise ideology of the Arab Spring protesters. Probably the movement has been too large and too diverse to possess any unified ideology. In fact, the only distinctive ideological fact about these protest movements has been their opposition to the official ideologies proclaimed by retrograde authoritarian regimes.

With the populist “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements in the US there is a more coherent ideological basis to the protests, but the fundamental fact is emotional and social rather than ideological. In the early days of the “Tea Party” movement many commentators outside the US claimed that the movement was narrowly focused on tax protest, but anyone in the US knew that there was a great deal of emotional if not reactionary right wing sentiment involved, rallied by a Democratic president whom the protesters wanted to replace, and anyone who knows this knows that the emotionally-driven right wing in the US is deeply concerned with the right wing social agenda.

The populist “Occupy” movement we now see also began as a relatively narrowly focused protest against perceived excesses of the financial sector, but anyone who knows US politics knows that the emotionally-driven left, like the emotionally-driven right, cannot stay focused on one issue, but the movement blossoms into a ployglot protest that becomes a catch-all for discontent of all kinds. Everyone who was unhappy with the current state of the US but who could not in good conscience march with the Tea Party movement, can now march (or sit in) with the “Occupy” movement.

Because of the unfocused, sprawling, and emotional character of populist movements like the “Tea Party” and the “Occupy” protesters, they lack the first the most important element that any successful campaign must possess: an objective. It is with good reason that “objective” is the first named of the principles of war. Social protest is a kind of informal war (it is a point along the Clausewitzean continuum, being the pursuit of politics by other means), and if that war is going to be successful, it must have an objective, and then it must take offensive action to secure its objective.

Here lies the fundamental difference between these populist protest movements in the US (and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe) and the Arab Spring protesters: the latter have, in each case, an objective. Not only do they have an objective, they have a clear, simple, and obvious objective that can be understood by anyone. In Egypt, the objective was to be rid of Mubarak. In Libya, the objective was to be rid of Gaddafi. In Syria, the objective is to be rid of Assad. In Yemen, the objective is to be rid of Saleh.

In two of the four examples of Arab Spring protests I have just mentioned, the protesters have been successful and have attained their aim. This aim has been somewhat anti-climactic, since the protesters discovered that when they woke up the next morning that they were rid of their autocrats, but the society created by the autocrats was still largely in place. Egypt is not now a bastion of democracy, but is rather run by the military, who allowed the protesters to protest against Mubarak, but quickly cleaned them out of El Tahrir once Mubarak was out. Thus we see how tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail.

Many of these same structural forces are present in the advanced industrialized nation-states as well, but in a more subtle form. When a Ronald Reagan or a Barack Obama comes into office as president, people imagine that something will fundamentally change in society, and that things will be different from here on out. Well, something does fundamentally change in the executive branch of the US government, but very little else changes, and society as a whole changes almost not at all.

The difficulty of catalyzing fundamental change in a robust and mature political system like those of Western Europe or North America, despite their historically unprecedented inclusion of the vox populi in governance, gives these most privileged and entitled populations a feeling of apathy and anomie despite their privilege and entitlement. Even when they elect “their man” who comes into office with “red meat” speeches, still nothing changes.

Even in a system as different as that of Iran, we saw the moderate Khatami ejected from office in favor of Ahmadi-Nejad because there was very little that Khatami could do to change the established regime in Tehran. So the Persians went from a reformer to a reactionary. From the point of view of an ideal rational actor, this makes no sense at all, but from the point of view of emotionally-driven populism, it makes perfect sense. People seek change by one way, and when they fail be to satisfied, they seek change in another way.

Why do people seek change? Because the lives they have made for themselves within the accepted standards of society have proved to be dissatisfying. Populist movements consist of people who followed the rules of society, or believed that they were following the rules of society, but the rewards that were believed to follow from following the rules either failed to materialize or, upon attaining these rewards, they were felt to be inadequate compensation for the trouble incurred in their attainment.

There should be no mystery or misunderstanding as to the nature of such discontent, as it figures prominently in American literature. The character of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof delivers himself to this choice piece of inauthenticity:

“Big Daddy wanted me to become a lawyer. I did. He said get married. I did. He said have kids. I did. He said live in Memphis. I did. Whatever he said to do, I did.”

This is the perennial complaint of the privileged and the entitled, left and right alike: I did everything the way I was supposed to, so why am I still so unhappy with my life? Why do I have so little to show for my efforts?

This is precisely why Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and this is precisely why Francis Bacon said, “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.”

If you fail in the most basic existential due diligence in life, no matter whatever else you do with your life, it’s always going to come up short.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Existential Due Diligence”

  1. MisterEgo said

    damn, this is the third time I manage to refresh the page while typing an essay.

    Sorry, I’ll have to leave you without the comment for this here even though I said on Addendum on the Chinese Revolution that I will deliver…

    Basically, Occupy is going to be a fart in space. There is no army that can challenge the US Army on it’s own soil. Except maybe the Banker corps. The Bolsheviks managed in Russia (the weakest link). There was no war as a catalyst for that change in Britain, France. In Germany though, it was. Remember, they were National *Socialists*…

    Also, the objective is clear: “get rid” of Wall Street. You just don’t see it as clearly since you are not tunnel visioned through on Fox/CNN.Also, it has to morph in a population of 380 million (Marxism, Bolshevism, Maoism, yada yada).

    Regarding Obama, heh… thank you for that wishful thinking. As long as he leads humanitarian airspace chem-trailing missions into African deserts (to bring rain to the thirsty, not war), us foreigners, along with you Americans, will hardly notice the amazing changes that the US Government is suffering from (EU fucks are to blame as well). To bad those substantial changes to the decorum of the White House do not result in a micron of shift in foreign policy (and else).

    We have a saying in Serbia: “same shit, different packaging”. It even rimes in our original…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo:

      Thanks for you comment, and I hope you’ll take the time to write you vanished comment again, although i urge you to write it in a word processor first and then copy it into the comment space. That’s much more secure. Everyone who writes on a computer knows the frustration of having what’s you’ve written vanish without a trace, as everyone who writes on paper knows the dangers of fire and water damage.

      Yes, well, perhaps you are right — maybe the objective of the “Occupy” protesters is to “get rid of Wall Street.” However, “Wall Street” remains a symbol and an abstraction that will be differently interpreted by different participants in the movement. Some would only be satisfied by bankers hanging from lampposts; some would be content with statutory limits on income or a few visible bank presidents losing their jobs.

      And, yes, while there is no power that can challenge the US armed forces on US soil, there is a precedent for change in political policy on the basis of massive street protests — Vietnam — and there is a precedent for infiltration of saboteurs on US soil able to wreak devastating havok — September 11.

      Very Respectfully Yours,


      • MisterEgo said

        While I understand your positivist view regarding street protests, and would like to share it, the problem with those is that, while they change the subjects in power, they usually fail to change the system. Egypt is a nice recent example. Mubarak left, nothing changed, same shit again. And even where, at first view, somebody 13 000 miles away things that ground shook, and even those close by think things have changed, it is usually just a mirage created by a change of players.

        I’ve happened to have lived through one such change that was deemed “democratic” when I was a kid, spurred on by masses and large amounts of US cash. The commies went, democrats came, nothing changed, maybe things even got worse as far as corruption goes.

        Protests usually fail to change the system, which is the real problem. Change the rules of the game, and the players will learn to follow or die out trying to adjust (probably receive prison sentences). It happens not through mass protests, but through whistle blowers.

        I know this is not a subject you are familiar with, but whistle blowing is happening currently on a massive scale in Croatia, for example. The good thing is that the prosecutors are starting to do their job as well, so the political game is changing there. And it seems to help that they’ve just changed their government from a nationalist (almost fascist) to a socialist one. We’ll see if it will last.

        I guess Wikileaks tried to do the same, to some extent, to change the game, but we’ve seen how well that went. I guess they pushed too far.

  2. Thanks for the update on the protest, i spend my day researching this stuff..so it’s always nice to come across a blog like this.

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