We live in a shockingly abstract society. By that I mean, among other things, that many of the forces which shape our daily lives are so distant from us that we think of them as concepts or entities rather than actual people or processes. The “Economy”, “Society”, “Government,” are all examples of this. We all have personal relationships with these abstract forces. It’s a sign of intelligence to have opinions about them and how they work. But this way of talking also constantly reinforces the notion that these things are distant from us – that they are other.
There’s a kind of mysticism to this language. I think that when you realize how comfortable we are invoking such abstract non-entities, things like the Roman gods or animal spirits start to make more sense – they too provided people with a vocabulary to talk about something that mattered to them, but that was not easily accessible or readily understood.
It’s interesting, though, that our ‘gods’ don’t really have personalities. We sometimes say things like “Society hates X” or “The Economy is Y”, but we always know that this is metaphorical. That really what we’re talking about is an abstract, complicated process. That it’s unreasonable to hold “the Economy” accountable for its actions – it just doesn’t make any sense.
There’s a kind of powerlessness that comes from living in a world that is shape by such alien forces. That powerlessness has been much written about – in some ways, it’s the “malaise” or “ennui” that existentialist philosophers and poets believe characterizes the modern condition.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, for all of their differences, both seem to me to be an anguished cry against precisely this kind of powerlessness. Both have had a crucial insight – that these big, abstract forces (Government or the Economy) are also, at some level, people. These systems are working for some people and against others, because some people like it that way. And so, to a certain extent, both protest movements take their primary goal to be changing the people – and so re-jigging the system.
But at another level, there is it seems to me an existential anger, a nihilism, to these movements; there have been plenty of reformers who share basically the Tea Party or Occupy’s agenda. But these movements are not, not really, reform movements. They think the system is wrong.
In this sense I think that they are jointly articulating a fundamental critique of modern mass society. Things are too complicated, too distant, too abstract. Even though nothing happens in society that people don’t do, it still seems like people can’t do anything to change how things are. The gap between life and politics, between work and the economy, is breathtaking. The movements appear ideologically opposite, but they are united in their appeal to a more basic, less complex set of values: let’s hold people accountable for things; let’s get rid of these colossal apparatuses that nobody thinks are fair or just or how things should be; let’s just try being fair for a while, and see how that goes.
It’s hard to decide whether this message – which is partially a call to reform this system, but also a visceral rejection of the system itself – is ultimately empowering. It stands in a deeply ambivalent relationship to the modern project of progress and reform. This ambivalence, I think, recaptures an important insight about the ambivalent nature of humanity’s position in the world, about our relationship to the abstract and external forces which shape our lives.
There is, after all, a hubris to thinking that we can fix everything. The Greeks knew that the gods were capricious. Maybe contemporary political discourse is re-learning that lesson.