Making sense of Occupy Wall Street: Tragic senses and synoptic views

The Distinction between Tragic Senses and Synoptic Views

It is to long form literature, above all the novel form, that we turn for a tragic sense of life. The novel especially affords the reader a phenomenological account of the tragic experiences of ordinary people leading ordinary lives amid the godlike forces of social transformation. (See, e.g., The Grapes of Wrath or Middlemarch.) The novel is essentially an answer to the question, “What is it like to be an ordinary person in the modern age?” Erich Auerbach, in his magnum opus Mimesis, claims that only with the invention of modern realism does a large swath of social reality ultimately and for the first time become visible and intelligible. He writes,

When Stendhal and Balzac took random individuals from daily life in their dependence upon current historical circumstances and made them the subjects of serious, problematic, and even tragic representation, they broke with the classic rule of distinct levels of style, for according to this rule, everyday practical reality could find a place in literature only within the frame of a low or intermediate kind of style, that is to say, as either grotesquely comic or pleasant, light, colorful, and elegant entertainment. (489)

One order of understanding is of the “what is it like…” variety. The other order is the speculative “view from above.” When Hegel states in The Philosophy of Right that “philosophy is its time raised to Conception,” he means that the only way of grasping reality in all its fullness is by constructing a conceptual framework sufficient for capturing the Whole. (“The truth is the whole,” he also likes to say.)

Thus, to make sense of any set of events, movement, or time will involve yoking a tragic sense of things together with a speculative view from above. (For more on the latter picture, see the tail end of my “With What Authority Does a Public Philosopher Speak?,” Butterflies and Wheels.)

The Tragic Sense of Occupy Wall Street

The best piece I’ve read so far is George Packer’s “All the Angry People: A Man Out of Work Finds Community at Occupy Wall Street,” New Yorker (December 5, 2011). Packer roams about the camp, picking up the many voices of the movement, the many harmonies and atonalities resounding within. It’s very moving.

The Synoptic View of Occupy Wall Street

Without question, the most lucid accounts I’ve read to date cast light on the anarchist principles underlying the movement. In “Pre-Occupied: The Origins and Future of Occupy Wall Street,” New Yorker (November 28, 2011), Mattathias Schwartz traces the movement back to the anarchist predilections of Kalle Lasn and Micah White, the heads of Adbusters. While Schwartz’s is more a journalistic rendering, David Graeber’s “Occupy Wall Street’s Anarchist Roots,” Al Jazeera (November 30, 2011) is more of a manifesto, the basis of which is the thoroughgoing rejection of the present social order and the austere affirmation of direct democracy.

An Alternative to Anarchism: Revolutionary Aristotelianism

My own view is that anarchism has taken on board a sense of alienation from the modern world, an alienation that it cannot shake and that has led it astray. With some qualifications, I would accept Alasdair MacIntyre’s conclusion that “The problem is not to reform the dominant order, but to find ways for local communities to survive by sustaining a life of the common good against the disintegrating forces of the nation-state and the market” (Radical Philosophy 70 (1995), p. 35)).

The starting point for my political thinking is not positive freedom (the first principle of anarchism) or distributive justice (the first principle of social democracy) but the common good (the first principle of Thomastic Aristotelianism). For more on this term of art, “revolutionary Aristotelianism,” see Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), the Introduction to which is available here.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Notes Toward an Understanding of Anarchism”. See also my essays on Alain Badiou.

Raymond Geuss, History and Illusion in Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Geuss provides an elegant conceptual analysis of the various kinds and strands of anarchism. (Enter “anarchism” in the “Search Inside” field.)