a) Why, it’s kicking off everywhere… except Melbourne
It’s been a wild year. After two to three years of seeming paralysis after the GFC, things kicked off. Indeed, as Paul Mason’s timely canvassing of the issue says, it appears to be kicking off everywhere.
Everywhere except Australia.
A pedal through Melbourne’s leafy north-east the other Sunday offered telling ride-by snapshots of middle-class Australia in 2012. On lower Heidelberg Road there’s a billboard advertising domain.com.au’s new iPad app, telling its punters ‘You’re not a property buyer, you’re a warrior in a battle for territory’ (?!); a few Ks up the road, the ‘Save Ivanhoe!’ campaign – signs on the plush, deep lawns of capacious interwar houses – reminds all passers by that ‘we’ oppose inappropriate development. But the most telling combo is just south of the Eastern, on Belmore Road, where the mausoleum bling of display home McMansions (with names like The Consort, the Ambassador, The Concubine), stretching from Box Hill to Kew, is punctuated by 100s upon 100s of dead CRT TVs. They’re everywhere: small and massive, old and new, many with cardboard signs saying ‘works fine’ and the remotes sticky taped to the top. Others lie face down on the nature strip besides curious baby magpies or reel silently against trees, their faces tagged up or smashed in. Who tags a dead TV? Thousands of people, apparently. Some have been there for months in the grass, soaking up the dog piss and the rain, waiting for the TV angels to swoop down and take them to TV heaven, or Lagos.
Middle-class suburban Australia in 2012 seems untouchably far from everything except itself, in which it remains totally, contentedly absorbed. When the weather’s good, you get the sense that things will be like this forever. Talking Heads said it: heaven really is a place, a where nothing, nothing ever happens. The countervoice says: ‘a storm is blowing in from Paradise’. Cyclones make it this far south when they’re made out of capital, when capital is built out of promises and premises that turn out to be false. I cycle past another sign, which reads ‘guard dogs patrol these premises’. We’ll need another decade or three to know what McMansion Australia was really made of. I have a feeling many of the CRTs will still be on the nature strip. But my sense is that, just like they still work fine for free-to-air, the TVs gathering in our streets can be viewed as a form of unwitting political assembly. In one sense they the real Occupy Melbourne, in that they do accurately represent the actions, interests and credit card transactions of the 99%.
Their presence says so much about Australia. Somehow it’s totally okay to throw out a TV, leave it on the street. We trust that someone will pick it up; sometimes hard rubbish do. Or dawn brigades of ageless Carnie-like men – the ones who monster the still dark stalls of Camberwell market of a Sunday – will spirit them away. Their presence also suggests, perhaps, that we trust that those who do pick our ex companions up will take them somewhere and treat them with the respect you would treat aged pet or parent. Put away quietly somewhere. Personally, their presence chills me, they’re sentinels from a future doom. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet…’
b) we must begin to pose the question… sorry, what…?
On day one at the other Occupy Melbourne – the one that, as I wrote at the time, proved that no notionally ‘public space’ is genuinely public, when push came to shove – there was another Occupier sporting a handmade cardboard sign. This one carried the following message, from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land:
“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation the cult of privatization and the private sector the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets disdain for the public sector the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.”
How does Judt’s famous quote fare from a Melbourne nature strip? In conversations I’ve had since Occupy Melbourne, there has been little sympathy for the movement, outside the movement. Occupy, in Melbourne, in 2011?! Wall Street? Systemic issues of finance capitalism? Solidarity (without utility)? This line of argument is usually followed by some kind of profession of Australian exceptionalism: Australian capitalism is properly regulated (just look at our wonderful banks); Australia has sailed through the last several recessions, will sail through this depression (we *are* the Lucky Country); we flog dirt to China (this last one the trump card). My sense is that no one who has seen the TVs as I have could possibly feel that way. But then, my sense is that very few people – especially the millions who have left theirs on the nature strip – have even ‘seen’ the TVs they watched for so many years, the living room occupant who spent more time with the family than anyone else, who really kept the terror and the loneliness at bay. Does Judt’s sentiment have a space in this room? Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?’ These are all big questions, social questions, which is why, according to the bearer of that piece of cardboard, they were the questions that ought to occupy Occupy Melbourne. But Melbourne is preoccupied. ‘I’m not a property buyer, I’m a warrior in a battle for territory’. ‘Save Ivanhoe!’ My kitchen rules.
Back to the world in 2012, about which Paul Mason wrote the following:
As the events recede and solidify it becomes clear that 2011 was, above all, a cultural revolution: a loss of fear in the dictatorships of north Africa; a loss of apathy among educated youth in Europe, Latin America and the US. And the revolution consisted of this: a mass rejection of the values dominant during 20 years of freemarket capitalism.
Everywhere except Australia.
c) nothin’ goin’ on but the rent
Zizek has been off form for years now – especially his sort of pathetic appearance on Q&A. (Or is this just proof that Q&A will stifle anything of intellectual interest? I’ll take that as a comment.) But in a recent piece for LRB he tightened up and came correct with the following assessment of contemporary capitalism. The following should be taken for its heuristic value; it’s not the whole truth or ‘reality’, but it does help gain an invaluable critical purchase on Melbourne’s various Occupations and Preoccupations. On the one side are the rentiers:
How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
On the other side, the structurally unemployed, the superfluous:
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege.
If everyone wants to become a rentier in Australia – a successful warrior who can then battle from the security of their castle (perhaps by hurling enormous CRT TVs off the ramparts at the tradies building the McMansions next door) – it’s because they know, in their hearts, that they risk falling into the second category. Large numbers of people now live off rents (if they were sensible, they saw the writing on the wall post ’83 or earlier, and provided for their nearly endless retirement in this way); large (and growing) numbers of their kids the latter. And in Australia, conditions are still sufficiently sound that there are even, still, significant numbers of real jobs for young people. But will they remain, given that anyone who works with the ‘ends’ of intellectual property is going to be wiped out – either downloaded and shared out of a viable existence, or locked up by the FBI? Well, what do you expect from a bad paradigm, predicated on an ontological error?
What Bill Gates understands is what the ‘ndrangheta understands is what The Greek understood: the way to survive in this conjuncture is to occupy a structurally integral nodal point on a distributive network. Making things is for chumps. And don’t be a ‘creative’, whatever you do. creatives produce content, and the content of content is indifferent. All content has to do is provide more content. So back to work. More: never get pegged as a ‘community’. Communities care, and care is unpaid, can be defunded and eliminated. That’s the assumption underpinning David Cameron’s Big Society. What you want to be is either a keyholder, a code owner, or a gatekeeper, someone who gets ‘em comin’ and gets ‘em goin’, without having to do the dirty work at either end. Hell, be a landlord, and have the key, code, or gate minded on your behalf. The following quote, from Das’ book on capital, tells us you everything you need to know about the world now.
At an internal conference in the early 1990s, John Thornton, a Goldman Sachs managing director, outlined a business model. Eschewing the traditional PowerPoint presentation, Thornton used a felt pen to draw dots on a white broad. ‘These are the important people in the world.’ Thornton then drew overlapping circles around the dots. ‘Inside these circles are the people they know, the deals they do, the ideas they are thinking about. Pretty much everything that happens in the world, happens in these circles.’ Pointing to where most of the circles overlapped, Thornton summed up investment banking: ‘This is where I want to be. That is our strategy’ (Das 2011, 87)
Goldman Sachs might be a ‘vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’, but they’re smart. They get it. They play it as it lays. You’ve got to hand it to them. You probably already have.
d) Occupy Yourself (with yourself)
Perhaps we all ‘get it’ though – but where does this leave ‘us’? Preoccupied, guilty, heavily invested in The Battle for Ivanhoe, or trying to find our own private Ivanhoe by way of a seachange, a treechange, or the Me Project. Above all the Me Project. Over the past decade, the two big lefty movements – of questionable leftness – have been ethical and aesthetic. In Australia, the former produced large numbers of Singerians (followers of Peter Singer); the latter produced local variants of the hipster. Whether ethical or aesthetic, the common move was away from the commons, away from the polis, away from politics. ‘We’ was in retreat, on retreat. It was a preoccupation of self with self. This is especially true when it concerned itself with others, in the case of Singerians, because, as I see it, their giving is predicated on guilt. It’s a guilt which, because of the felicific calculus, they can reduce by a certain amount by giving a certain amount. Singerians are unblinkingly well intentioned. They are also, mostly, very humourless, because righteous. And will not found a viable future politics.
Paul Mason’s article, quoted above, also states that ‘2012 opens with a pause’. I agree, and I invite you all to use this pause – a luxuriant pause, in middle-class Australia – to think. Fundamentally, I invite you all to occupy yourself with yourself*. This doesn’t mean what you think it does. I’m not offering an invitation to further preoccupation, or full-blown narcissistic self absorption. And personally I’ve had enough of territorial warriors and anxious worriers. As I see it, occupying ourselves with ourselves means no longer shirking – as political – the political questions and problems of our day. Most of us suck at politics, but it’s because we’re out of practice. Politics is a practice we’ve been out of… so we feel shy and embarrassed even talking about it. And avoid the topic. Or feel shrilly vindicated by our own values, without really understanding what they are, as I wrote of Australia Day. Back to the Me Project, back into ethics, back into aesthetics, back to the iThing, retreat, retreat… But remember this: we keep on retreating and bailing out of the hard conversations, but the world keeps changing. The TVs pile up. The growing gyre keeps turning. We keep sucking, but so too does Goldman Sachs. From Judt to Ivanhoe to the nature strip, we should try to understand the place we occupy in the city. Democratic politics? What is a demos, what is kratos, what is a polis – what was Goldman’s role in the Greek crisis (and why is it never reported, in spite of the mantra of ‘profligate Greeks’)? Why did the oligarchs kill Socrates? What is public? Who owns the nature strip? Where do the CRT TVs actually end up? We have a world to occupy ourselves with.