Occupy #6 – A better standard of living

“We don’t want a higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living.” – Slavoj Zizek speaking at a recent Occupy protest

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

7 thoughts on “Occupy #6 – A better standard of living”

  1. Zizek’s quote in context:

    “We don’t want a higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight. Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here.”

    I’m not sure who he means by “we,” but there are those among the OWS who are communists in more than the limited way Zizek frames it. Earlier in his address Z almost states outright that communism is anti-democratic. That’s a crock and he knows it, being the Marxist that he proclaims himself to be, a self-branding that many others on the left have come to doubt. Implicit in his statement: communists are for a higher standard of living, whereas “we,” the non-communists, want a better standard of living. Also implicit: this means that “we” do not want a higher standard of living. Why not? A study released just this week shows that the top 1% increased their income by 275% over the past 30 years, compared with the other 99% whose income grew by maybe 50%. Doesn’t “we are the 99%” imply that “we” do want a larger share relative to the 1% — a higher standard of living relative to the present situation in which the rich are getting richer at others’ expense? Wanting a larger share of the fruits of “our” labor doesn’t imply that “we” want America to turn into the totalitarian Soviet Union, nor even into a communist democracy — which is central the idea of communism as a stateless egalitarian society. In short, I think that Zizek should speak for himself, not for “we.”


  2. ktismatics,

    Certainly it is central to the Occupy movement that “we” want to create a society with a more fair and equitable distribution of wealth and power. What resonates with me about Zizek’s quote is that it isn’t just about getting a bigger television. The criticisms from the right, guys like Herman Cain, is that the Occupy movement just wants to “get rich” by fleecing the rich. The direct implication is that they are just as consumeristic as conservative Republicans, only the protesters haven’t worked hard enough and just want to have their consumeristic toys handed to them.

    I for one, am not interested in a simple redistribution of wealth that continues to perpetuate consumerism and the destruction caused by disposable societies. Zizek, I know, is also a severe critic of the mindless consumeristic matrix. Others that I have talked to from Occupy also seem to be on this same page. I don’t want a “higher” standard of living, in the American capitalistic sense, where I just by more and more plastic shit made in sweatshops. I want a “better” standard of living. So, certainly this will involve rearranging society so that wealth is more evenly distributed. The aim, however, in my view, is to make sure that society functions in such a way so as to ensure that people have access to good work/occupations, healthcare, education, housing, and nutritional food. That’s the “better” standard of living.

    In short, I initially understood Zizek’s comments to be contrasting the consumeristic aims of capitalism with the objectives of protesters, not in contrasting the aims of communists with the objectives of the protesters. Citing Z’s sentences that follow his quote seems to indicate, I confess, that he is contrasting the aims of communists with those of the protesters, and perhaps that was his intent. I’ve read and heard him indicate that he felt that Soviet-style communism was just as consumeristic and even “capitalistic” as capitalism. In fact, in this same speech, he does mention the capitalism of China, as an example of anti-democratic capitalism.


  3. I see no clarifications in Zizek’s remarks about how he defines “better.” He says nothing about consumerism. Further, why should the 99% getting higher pay necessarily mean that they are going to buy more useless crap? This sounds like elitist bullshit, as if ordinary people wouldn’t know what to do with more money if they had it. People need money to pay for food, housing, healthcare, education, retirement — all of which is increasingly out of reach for a higher proportion of people. You specifically mention these things too as essentials for a better life. In this economy, being able to buy them means either more money or lower costs. Incidentally, I have no inside information but I bet that Zizek has a HUGE TV.

    Anyhow, one of the questions about OWS is who “we” are, isn’t it? I can say that Zizek should speak for himself and not for the “we,” and so should you, and so should I, but pretty soon this sounds like just a gathering of individual free-speech enthusiasts lacking common cause. On the other hand, issuing collective demands is old-school protest strategy, which too quickly limits what this thing could become and is too easily coopted by politics as usual. So far so good in steering between the rock and the hard place.


  4. I agree. “So far so good in steering between the rock and the hard place” of collective demands versus freedom of expression. More and more I favor building a movement that organizes around a new way of democratic process and political influence over and above trying to too quickly directly influence that political process. In the meantime, despite not directly trying to influence any particular political policy matter, the protests have led to Dems in congress being emboldened to speak up on behalf of a millionaires tax, and, lo and behold, Obama suddenly suggests easing the burden of student debt.

    Maybe vague is better. Let’s try it.

    I think you may be too harsh on Zizek. From what I’ve seen, he’s got a small apartment and a small tv. To me, talking about a “better” standard of living is precisely about trusting that if there were a better distribution of wealth, then the rest of us average people would in fact have a better sense of how to use that wealth for a better standard of living rather than simply a higher one. In context, I think Zizek’s comments are more directed against people like Herman Cain and others on the right who deride protesters as those who simply want government handouts.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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