Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Rural: Will It Play In Peoria?

Gone Viral: Diane McEachern and her dogs in Bethel, Alaska;  Anchorage Daily News

There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.
          - Slavoj Žižek, speaking at Occupy Wall Street on October 8th

I'd like to continue a discussion of the rural dimension of the Occupy movement with these words by internationally-acclaimed literary critic Slavoj Žižek. Folks can read his full remarks in transcript, along with video here; and I'd encourage our readers, regardless of political persuasion, to review Mr. Žižek's comments, as his remarks stand as one of the most lucid articulations of this movement from one of the world's most celebrated thinkers. From what I can tell, much of the mainstream media -- just as Diane Sawyer focuses again on rural destitution for urban consumption -- is more interested in displaying a cartoonish view of the Occupy movement. These words help to expand the dialogue; here's another excerpt:
There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the rule is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?
Remember. The problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt. Beware not only of the enemies, but also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, they will try to make this into a harmless, moral protest. A decaffienated process. But the reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after marriage agencies are now outsourcing our love life, we can see that for a long time, we allow our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back.
Žižek gets to the two poles at the center of this debate: on one hand, that this gathering of voices could be minimized to a "harmless, moral protest," something for which a number of folks in rural organizations can no doubt identify. In keeping with that, and considering Occupy Wall Street from a rural perspective, the closely-related possibility is that, for many living outside of the cities and suburbs, these members of this movement will appear, in modifying Žižek's words, only "in love with themselves." 

I include these images not to offer a caricature, or to poke fun, but to suggest that while the Occupy movement should be concerned with projecting a richer narrative of its aims to the American public, they also need to be concerned with the very image- and media-related techniques which they openly critique  Or, to put it another way, they might ask how will it play in Peoria? 

Or, how would it play to Joe Bageant? He would no doubt support their efforts, but the video below adds a class-perspective, and a cautionary one at that,  to the possible perceived "smugness" of the Occupy movement. If folks haven't read it yet this week, please see Lisa Pruitt's stellar consideration of his work in The Daily Yonder.

Beyond this, the movement should ask themselves if the rhetoric of "smashing capitalism" allows for real change, or if it is a self-congratulatory position. Is it perceived, outside of the largely urban sanctuaries of Occupy culture, as a comfortable, elitist slogan? Across most of the countryside we need rural economic development, we need local and sustainable business communities, we need imaginative entrepreneurs. Purely from my own perspective, I would echo what Alec Baldwin says below, that capitalism is worthwhile. I would add to his remarks that we need to think, as the Occupy movement has forced us to, about how we can can adapt these questions on a local level. Consider the words of Wendell Berry in The Citizenship Papers along with Alec Baldwin's remarks amongst Ron Paul "sentimentalists" at Occupy Wall Street:
We live, as we must sooner or later recognize, in an era of sentimental economics and, consequently, of sentimental politics. Sentimental communism holds in effect that everybody and everything should suffer for the good of "the many" who, though miserable in the present, will be happy in the future for exactly the same reasons that they are miserable in the present.

Sentimental capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism as the corporate and political powers claim. Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the "free market" and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to "the many" - in, of course, the future. 

Since our initial piece on the rural dynamic to the Occupy movement, many new outlets have emerged to help tell the broader cultural story; earlier this week we mentioned Occupy Rural, and to this list should be added two Occupy Rural America Facebook groups here and here

As I mentioned earlier in the week, the kind of change folks could see in their local, rural communities might be more lasting, more permanent, than what emerges on a broader scale from Zuccotti Park.  I'd refer above to Rachel Reynolds Luster's description of her experiences in southern Missouri, and I'd also suggest that these kinds of social gatherings in a rural America could cut across generational, cultural, and political lines in such a way that these newly formed communities could put their minds towards solving together some of their region's challenges. If the politics of the last decade has fractured our sense of participation and cooperation, then perhaps such collaborations might be the lasting legacy of the Occupy movement.