Existential Due Diligence

17 October 2011

Monday


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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