Current accounts of the Occupy Movement depict it as drawing derision from those who are “just trying to get to work.” Exhorting Occupiers to “get a job,” conservatives frame their opposition in standard, obsequious corporatese. Apparently assuming that people are unemployed because they want to be, the reflex response of self-abasing, “respectable” people has been to throw their resumes at the movement.
That we debase ourselves by reducing individual identity so narrowly to, for instance, job title is symptomatic of the hierarchies that trap us. In 1984, George Orwell described a society in the shape of a “pyramidal structure,” defined by its tiers of Low, Middle and High, and (perhaps more importantly) by their roles relative to one another.
The distinctive, defining feature of such a class society, Orwell argued, was not so much that the High necessarily live a life of opulence and abundance, but simply that they live better than the class below. Accordingly, it was not just the spoils of an all-embracing exploitation that drove and distinguished Orwell’s authoritarian class society, but also the psychological benefits an oppressor derives from oppression.
Today, the qualities of what are commonly referred to as the “public” and “private” sectors are, contrary to conventional wisdom, quite indistinguishable, with sterile, monolithic bureaucracies epitomizing both. The efficient, innovative, giant corporation is no less an invention of elite propaganda than is the notion of the state as munificent protector against capitalist greed.
In reality, the state has always confined economic relationships within an autoclave, prohibiting certain kinds of competition while subsidizing others. The ultimate result of the state’s violent interventions is an unvaried, lifeless economy where a small group of corporate aristocrats — corresponding to Orwell’s “Inner Party” — enjoy positions of social and economic superiority.
From their dress and their titles, what Robert Paul Wolff called “the visible signs of officiality,” we are able to recognize and distinguish members of the ruling class just as we recognize the lower classes that hold them up.
Now, as class awareness has become a perceptible, indeed palpable, ingredient in a popular movement, it is more important than ever to differentiate the pyramidal corporate capitalist system from a true free market.
A true free market would pull the rug out from under social structures that depend for their existence on systematic force in opposition to individual rights, cooperation and trade. As 1984 so arrestingly taught, the psychology of brutal hierarchies is intimately yoked to a particular, unjust distribution of wealth.
Were genuine free markets permitted to circulate the benefits of resources and technologies, the world’s hierarchies would be unable to corner and capture us or our productive power. The “vicious circle” is immediately apparent: Extreme economic inequalities rely on extreme inequalities in individuals’ rights within society, and the reverse is just as true.
The wealth that big business boasts is therefore directly tied to the fact that they have prerogatives that we do not. Subsidies, regulatory and cost barriers, government contracts and arbitrary mandates all blend together in a paradigm that disempowers the worker. Some “free market.”
Occupy’s servile critics — all of the statist economy’s good worker bees — might do well to consider how much their hard-work mantras mean to the Bosses. Perhaps then those job titles would reveal themselves as embarrassments, not laurels.