George Santayana was a brilliant philosopher doomed to obscurity by his inability to fathom the meaning and significance of pragmatism. It was sunk too deeply in the “moods of the dumb majority,” he complained.
But we remember his dictum about repeating the past, don’t we? Bet you can recite it, right now.
It’s a preposterous notion, and yet, like his characterization of pragmatism, it still makes sense; for it guards us against the murderous idiocies of this moment, whenever that may be: it takes us back, it removes us from the present, it gives us some perspective.
I invoke Santayana because we’re both repeating the past and outliving it, probably without even knowing it.
Open a newspaper in any language and what do you see, today, October 20, 2011? The world is being turned upside down as the origins of western civilization burn. Rome is still smoldering, Athens is the epicenter of a general strike. Meanwhile students tear up the pavement in Santiago, and slackers, god love ‘em, still vandalize London. The map of the occupied is not the territory of the redeemed, to be sure, but the imaginable relation between the two is getting more interesting every day.
No place on the planet is exempt from these unruly spectacles, except (maybe) Beijing. Right here in River City, the mayor can’t remove an encampment of political nomads from a corporate plaza across Broadway from Brown Brothers Harriman because 87 percent of New Yorkers approve of the Zuccotti Park occupation.
The markets adjust accordingly, meaning that every trader has factored European default—please note, not just Greece—and prolonged crisis into his or her forecasts.
So, is it 1968 all over again?
Yes, the unease and unruliness and unrest are pandemic, like then—the inarticulate anger is everywhere. But here’s the thing. Great art and revolutionary politics accomplish something very similar—they express what is evident yet unknown because they stand at the heart of change, telling us where it can lead, where it should lead. Great artists and successful revolutionaries put into words and pictures what we were all thinking, but hadn’t yet materialized, so when we stumble on their insights, we say “Of course!” As if these truths were just waiting for us.
1968 came and went because nobody knew what to do about the power of the powerless, not even the powerful. Now we do. We’ve seen the Arab Spring, and before that, we saw the Velvet Revolution, where the spectacle, the mere performance, of resistance was the program—the means and the end.
I don’t want to get all post-modern on you here, but this is what the Occupation is about: the sheer spectacle, the bizarre presence, of a quiet, peaceful, yet determined army of the unsatisfied and the unemployed in the very heart of globalized capitalism. In a wonderfully ironic twist of fate, Debord’s society of the spectacle has rented space in Zuccotti Park, and turned it upside down.
Now we know this: we can outlast them. We already have.