I have seen references in the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street to the “Culture of Greed,” which strikes me as a meaningless term. Think of what comes to mind with its opposite – the Culture of Generosity. This grammatical construction, of course, is not unique, other “cultures” have preceded it: the culture of violence, of care and the list could go on. In fact, the other day I read about the culture of work! And of course there is that ever present anomaly, corporate culture. I expect to read next of the “Culture of Culture” as something that existed in the nineteenth century.
The use of the word “culture” as in youth culture replaces the previous terminology that referred to a social group as a society, for example, society of the addicted, of youth, of hedge-funders. I have no idea when precisely these social groups, much less abstractions or descriptive nouns, attained cultural status, but it must be decades old. Maybe as culture, in the traditional sense, lost its meaning through commodification the word was resuscitated to serve as a term for the core beliefs and practices of a specific social group. This seems a plausible explanation.
My interest with this usage however isn’t etymological, but political. To talk about a culture of greed, despite its presumed criticality, testifies to the reality that the economy occupies every corner of our lives. And in occupying our lives, encloses and confines it. The pervasive onslaught by advertisers and the commercialization of everything has reduced all discussions to discussions of the economy. Every conversation may begin elsewhere but eventually it returns, in some manner or another, to the economy. I hasten to add, that as victims of this economy, we must be aware of its cunning strategy to subdue us. We must learn its vocabulary and syntax. However, beyond its manipulations on the most obvious level, with wage slavery, that is, control of our body, the economic imperative also seeks to control, if I may use this word, our soul.
The condemnation of the one percent by Occupy Wall Street too easily slips into that popular, though deluded, American moralism that condemns the rich for their greed, and then piously searches for an economic corrective. There are counter currents in OWS that ally it to demands for basic social transformation; to argue for that perspective means abandoning the confines of an economic solution to address a much larger problem. I think that OWS broke free of this restrictive analysis, despite its early emphasis on the symbolism of Wall Street, by creating a real culture in its encampment. It is the creative aspect of OWS that has been duplicated with enthusiasm all across the country.
Zuccotti Park, a private/public absurdity, poses as a park, but is actually an enclosure of public space. Liberty Plaza, as OWS renamed it, on the other hand, was an experiment to “de-enclose” this space and create a rarity in the larger society – a kind of “hot house” society based on human needs. It became a little utopia, an island of cultural exuberance, in the center of New York’s financial district.
And what a joke – at the center of the temple of the economy – no one at OWS worked! How freer can you be from the economy than that? Some of those attending assemblies, and even sleeping overnight, may have had jobs and could only participate in the camp’s activities on their free time, but still no one at OWS received wages, yet people were fed and sheltered; art happened, friendships formed, salons appeared like mushrooms and discussions ranged over a multitude of topics.
It is easy to ridicule this urban experiment where pizzas seemed to drop from heaven like manna, and those who wanted to demonstrate their solidarity, practically, donated all sorts of other food and supplies. And money, as if by magic, flowed into the camp through an online conduit. This unreality clashed with what we expect of life – sacrifice. Liberty Plaza was a dreamscape, some may say, not real life, but then what is “real life?” Work (for those “lucky” enough to have jobs), commuting, shopping to retrieve daily necessities and sleep. Where’s the life? The residents of the camps who had what looked like a day of leisure, day after day, agreed that they never had a more intense life.
It is ironic that though economic factors lay behind the origins of OWS’s seizure of space following the Arab Spring model, it was their creation of their village life and its structure and rituals, that overwhelming affected the participants and seduced new adherents. In other words, outrage brought them together originally, but what created their solidarity was their subjective transformation brought about by their social creativity.
This is exactly what is missing in our lives as we follow the dictates of the economic imperative. An authentic life flourishes where friendship, gifting, and ludic activity reign and imaginative social reproduction percolates to provide for a life of material well-being by first attending to our psychological well-being.