We are living in a cultural moment in which many people are waking to the reality that our representative democracy has failed in many ways. The perpetual wars we wage in the name of freedom are unjust, criminal, and draining. They do not further the cause of liberty at home or abroad. The criminalization of drug use and abuse has led to a historically unprecedented expansion of the criminal justice system into a conduit for the prison industrial complex. This moment is historically contiguous to the social justice upheavals of the 1960s. What we are witnessing and participating in is a revival of the Movement that was overwhelmed and stifled by reactionary forces in the 1970s.
We’ve been asleep to state oppression for far too long, blunted by fear of foreign terror, lulled by consumerism and the myth of individual exceptionalism–the notion that anyone, if they work hard enough, can enter the narrow confines of the capitalistic meritocracy. And the space at the top of that meritocracy is indeed narrow and confining, because extraordinary material success breeds a prolific nightmare of material wants, demands, and needs. To engage in the capitalistic dream of material success is to voluntarily enter a different kind of prison, one that is structured with the invisible bars and walls of insecurity, jealousy, and spite toward the less fortunate, whose poverty demands restitution. Intense material success, which is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, cannot exist without deprivation. We see this clearly in the narrative of the 1% and the 99%, and the inequity of that system has been well-documented.
That narrative, the narrative of our lives–our reality–depends on a complex system of economics, legislation, cultural perception, mass media saturation, and miseducation. This complex system operates like a tangle of bindweed, also known as morning glory, an invasive species of plant that threads its way through soil to pop up everywhere as attractive little flowers. As an invasive species, it outcompetes other plants and has the potential to dominate the landscape. For simplicity’s sake, let’s label the invasive species in our cultural landscape as capitalist meritocracy.
We should acknowledge that part of the tangled root-system of capitalist meritocracy is the miseducation system. In 1964, a salient challenge to that miseducation system rose up in Berkeley, California in the body of the Free Speech Movement. The Free Speech Movement was rooted in the Civil Right Movement and focused on opposing the Vietnam War. It was made up predominantly of white students acting within the university system, so it may seem to differ from the current
#BlackLivesMatter Movement. But with a close examination, we see that the two movements share similarities: they both are grassroots and participatory, critique systemic oppression, and call for change. The focus and impetus of Mario Savio’s speech–students being denied freedom of assembly at UC Berkeley–seems trivial compared to police violence and mass incarceration. In the larger context, we remember the FSM’s roots in organizing against oppression in the Deep South and against the Vietnam War. Note also that the FSM built relationships with the Congress of Racial Equality and International Workers of the World.
We recognize that denial of freedom of assembly is state violence in that it punishes citizens for practicing the First Amendment. Denial of freedom of assembly is very relevant to protest. One striking feature of Savio’s speech is that he is critiquing an education system that treats students as raw materials for a machine; yet at this point, our education system has become largely a process that molds raw materials into specialized products for capitalism. Watch his 1964 speech if you haven’t. See how outraged he is over the notion of that kind of education.
Does his outrage seem naive? We’ve been conditioned to accept work and career as our function in the economy. In our economic system, the notion that work should be personally fulfilling is not primary; it’s incidental. Work should be both personally fulfilling and serve a function in society. It should promote social cohesion and further social progress. But our vision of society has been deformed into one where public good is primarily economic, financial. Corporate. As if corporations were the vanguard of human progress, we’ve entrusted them with immense power over our lives. In many ways, corporations represent us in our representative democracy. This is a reason why direct action is important. We build social movements to hold representatives, whoever they may be, accountable, and to change that process into one of participation.
Yesterday, a group of students demonstrated outside of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota, demanding that the University meet the promises it has made to further ethnic and gender diversity at the University. After marching around the building and chanting, 16 protesters entered University president Kaler’s office with their demands. Thirteen of the protesters stayed into the evening and were arrested. The protesters were aware that their actions could lead to arrest; such is the price of civil disobedience, and they were willing to pay it.
We are making connections between the different forms of state oppression, and we will need to continue to do so in order to build a cohesive social movement that can challenge and uproot the invasive species of meritocratic capitalism. That species’ roots are violent. They crowd us out, they leave us no room to grow, so that our lives are stunted in an alarming variety of ways.
We must expect reaction, of course. We can either look to history or the contemporary landscape to see the reaction; the reaction is indeed part of the violence of the invasive species. Our culture is polluted by the ideals of competition and scarcity. The scarcity is artificial and can be alleviated by benevolent actions of collective human will. We must generate that action; the prevailing system of capitalist meritocracy has failed to generate it for us and will continue to fail. We must work from our places within that system and stretch out our benevolent roots, from root to root, linking roots, hands, engaging in creative resistance against the destructive hold that stunts our growth. In this engagement, our stance of resistance is predicated on the oppressive structures that bind us; we are responding to being stifled by the entrenched structures of capitalist meritocracy. Our goal is to, if possible, remediate and transform the invasive species into a fundamentally different species that is able to coexist rather than outcompete. If that is not possible, it must be rooted out and replaced.
As our resistance is predicated on the oppressive structures of capitalist meritocracy, our resistance will be transformed when the meritocracy is transformed. The result will be an unprecedented society of cooperation and mutuality. That is what we are fighting for.