There is a clear link between the coffee I drink in the morning and the opportunity of the daughter (or son) of the coffee farmer of being able to go to school or being left to work the fields for subsistence. It makes me wonder whether I should drink coffee or rather (as I do drink coffee in the morning) which coffee? How will I know that I am doing the right thing? And it’s not only coffee that implies such a clear link. Drinking coffee, buying cloths, eating meat, flying to a far away holiday destination, in short; consuming, is not just that – consumption – but has become a moral act, or at least, that’s what we are becoming conscious of.
Occupy … is not a protest but an act of awareness. We, at least those occupying, be it Wall Street in New York, Dame Street in Dublin, the square in front of the Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, etc. have established vibrant public spheres, connected digitally at a global level. We are creating news or, in Castells words, we’re in the process of mass self-communication. Those physically present are but a mere fraction of those that have become aware and share their thoughts through all kinds of networks. But what have we become aware of? We become aware that we do not know. At first, when Occupying Wall Street started, it made people laugh; no clear goal, no clear object/subject to protest against, except the ‘ economic system’, the ‘ banks’, etc. Losers. But what we failed to see, and many still do, is that the protest is against something in the abstract, perhaps something anonymous. More dramatic: we become aware that, as Gunther Teubner has it, we live in an “anonymous matrix”.
But our resistance against the ‘economic system’, etc. is only part of the story, or so it seems to me. The financial crisis or the economic crisis is a symptom, a more visible manifestation of something deeper. We are in an ethical crisis; we haven’t got a clue, using the mechanism of whatever. No one has a clue about what is going on and where it is going to. The bankers do not have a clue about their products, the politicians have no clue what their worth is as national politicians in a global world, corporate ceo’s have no clue, and the only thing to cling on to is the status quo: the alternative which is the only one allowed to be spoken of: a neo-liberal, capitalist system as exists today, fed by greed and deregulation, devoid of responsibility but a mere legal one, behind which to hide. Indeed, “We all accept liberal democratic capitalism, even during this current pan-European disaster,” Žižek says. “We timidly ask, ‘Oh, can we have a few more rights for minorities? A little more healthcare?’ But nobody questions the frame. And that is the real triumph of ideology.”
Perhaps one way to conceptualise the problem is to understand the ethical crisis as our confrontation with uncertainty posed by and through the ‘frame’, the system, the matrix. Uncertainty is perhaps key to get a grip upon what is going on. This is what struck me at Occupying Amsterdam: many people spoke and some said silly things, some said funny things but many tried to get clear in their heads what the problem is. And that’s where it starts. The protest, the movement is about getting clear what’s going on, getting a grip on the ethical crisis in order to be able to figure out what the solutions are or can be. And this is a difficult task. When talking to my students, they say: I do not know what to think, I do not know what my position is, I do not have information. It is symptomatic of our times, our fear for uncertainty and the need to live our lives in the belief of certainty of what we do, what we decide makes sense. But we do not know, except that something is wrong, something big is wrong in the world. It demands courage to admit knowing that we do not know. It takes courage to embrace uncertainty and assert autonomy, to say enough is enough and to allow, following Žižek: “We are allowed to think about alternatives. The rule is broken. We do not live in the best possible way. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want?”
Ubaldus de Vries is Lecturer in law, University of Utrecht (u.devries[at]uu.nl)
References (in the order of appearance):
– Manuel Castells Communication Power, Oxford: OUP, 2009
– Danny Leigh, ‘Slavoj Žižek: Blofeld rides again’, guardian.co.uk, 16-10-2011,
– Gunther Teubner, ‘The Anonymous Matrix: Human Rights Violations by “Private” Transnational Actors’, Modern Law Review 69, 2006, 327-346
– Slavoj Žižek, speaking at Occupy Wall Street: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/slavoj-zizek-occupy-wall-street_n_1003566.html.