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The Repository of Sentiments

I’m finishing up editing on Roger Gathman’s book on Marx this week. There’s a great passage in it on what Marx thought about revolutionaries who confused their lifestyle with their goals:

Throughout his life, Marx expressed only derision for those “revolutionaries” who focused largely on their own personal experience and in the process became celebrities. He did not think of politics in terms of “gentle souls” and “noble spirits”; to him, such talk was on the level of petit-bourgeois socialism, which sought to impose an ahistorical vision of justice on society. It was in extreme bad taste, Marx thought, to make politics the repository for your sentiments. The object of revolution should never be confused with the experience of the revolutionary.

Politics is not poetry. It’s not where you go to feel warm and fuzzed, fuck sweaty scruffy youths, and sing and dance poorly. Or at least, that’s not all it’s for. It’s not beauty. It’s where you go to stop the vampire bleeding you dry. Sentiment is necessary to politics, but not its end. It’s not quite merely window dressing, but it’s not the point, either. It gets bodies motivated to achieve things. (And it takes a lot of motivated bodies to achieve things.) But it’s not the end itself. So there’s an odd collision between political goal and personal sentiment. The revolutionary impulse spins as both collide with each other.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park illustrate this. They’re being disparaged (by confused people and retained opinion-makers) for being without a platform. Immature. Inarticulate. Sans objective, replete with sentiment, “noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people.” What draws (apparently) many of them to the site is a raw sense of injustice — there’s a lot to feel raw about. And also the coming together of like-feeling bodies. They do not have a stated goal, because they are not a group. But it is irrelevant, at this point, that they are not unified and have produced no bite-sized list of demands. Our ghoulful anchorpeople and retained journalists would love such a thing, because then they could stage a debate among compensated experts, show how silly and immature the children are. If only they had more experience in the real world of jobs, and debts, and oh my. An acquaintance tells me, ”No one will take them seriously without a platform.” And the Times prints their piece featuring people who mock the kiddies for using Apple products while decrying corporate power. As if either were substantive criticism.

But they’re sticking around (far longer than cynical I thought they would). And they are inspiring sister actions in other cities. In LA, in Chicago, elsewhere. In New York, the protest has even apparently gotten a vote of support from the Transit Workers Union. Should all these things continue persisting, it will be no small group of children to chuckle at before return to the trial for MJ’s doctor. Should they continue persisting, the sentiments that inspired the protesters will actually achieve a useful object: a location and a process through which to continually re-articulate political demands, and the present, aggravating, annoying reminder that these demands are being made. And as the economy sputters to a halt, we’re going to need more ways to articulate and make present our demands. Because at the moment most of us don’t know what they are or how to express them, much less get people to hear.

So thank the protesters, if they keep going. And go swell their number when you can.

Categories: Notes.

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