Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old Occupy activist, is going to trial on charges of assaulting a police officer. Chase Madar explains that McMillan is “a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term.”
This week, jury selection has begun for McMillan’s case. The Guardian reports that the “trial of Occupy activist struggles to find jurors impartial to protest movement.” The selection phase is moving so slowly because the pool is full of people like “Mary Malone–an Upper East Side resident who previously worked for a bond fund and said: ‘I have really strong feelings about Occupy Wall Street and the people involved’–and Peter Kaled, a corporate finance worker from the Upper West Side who said that one of his friends had policed Zuccotti Park at the height of the protests.”
That so many New Yorkers interviewed to serve on the jury have shown strong antipathy towards the Occupy movement isn’t that surprising. Since the city is the world’s financial capital, enough of its citizens see threats to the interests of oligarchs as threats to their own interests. However, the responses of these prospective jurors are remarkable for how they encapsulate what the rich think about the rest of us.
McMillan’s case is one of these events where Middle School civics-lessons about freedom meet the real limits on permissible dissent. Petitioning your government for a redress of grievances is fine until your government’s owners want you out. According to Madar, “Cecily McMillan’s Occupy trial is a huge test of US civil liberties,” and he asks “will they survive?” Now, the process of jury selection is illuminating even more about the boundaries of the world in which we live. In a series of revealing statements to The Guardian, these finance-connected Manhattanites illuminate the contours of the alternate physical, mental, and moral world that capital has created.
The first rejected juror is one George Yih, whom LinkedIn identifies as a “Venture Capital & Private Equity Professional”:
“I’m involved in Wall Street things. I’m on the Wall Street side, not their side,” George Yih, one of a group of prospective jurors…said under questioning from Judge Ronald Zweibel on Wednesday. “They can protest all they want, but they can’t brainwash my mind.”
For Yih, like so many others who are benefitting from the way the world works, widespread discontent is baffling. A movement like Occupy could seem like reality-free “brainwashing” only if one had no connection to the daily, lived reality of millions (or rather, billions) whom capitalism is immiserating rather than enriching. For billionaires and people like Yih making six figures a year serving those billionaires, all this citizen discontent must seem strange and frivolous.
This disconnect from the reality which most of us inhabit doesn’t just manifest itself in extemporaneous commentary. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal showed that even elites whose job is to “objectively” know things don’t know—or wish to accurately represent—how the rest of us live. In an infographic attached to an article titled “How much will your taxes jump?,” the WSJ depicted four families and how they would be affected by new tax policies. In a country where $52,000/y is the median income, the WSJ showed the “poorest” couple making $180,000. While internships have extracted billions in free labor from millennials who owe a collective trillion dollars in student loan debt, the WSJ showed a young-looking single person suffering with a $230,000 per annum paycheck. That Yih sees the world in terms of his “Wall Street side” versus ”their side” is accurate. However, the idea that “their side” is the one brainwashing him is a fantasy—the elite message, disseminated in outlets like the Wall Street Journal, has proven more effective in the propaganda department.
The next prospective juror is Jason McLean. Jason, it would please the court for you to inform us of any conflicts-of-interest that preclude you from carrying out your duties as a juror:
“For 20 years, my occupation has been, in some fashion, on Wall Street,” said Jason McLean, who said he was an equity trader living in Murray Hill with his wife, who was also an equity trader. “Everything I believe–my morals–are kind of the antithesis of what they represent.”
Jason McLean, who like his wife is an equity trader, lives in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Murray Hill, New York. In 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off, Murray Hill’s median annual household income was US $114,000, compared to New York’s median income of less than $50,000/y. With these kinds of racial/class divides, New York City is a decent approximation of the fissures in wider American culture.
The rich and super-rich live mere miles away from some of the country’s poorest people, while never interacting with them. This de facto racial and economic segregation enables the elites to live in an alternate world of plenty, leisure, and privilege–while never realizing it’s different for anyone else. Mike Davis describes an “alternative, interconnected planet” for the rich; archipelagoes between which the wealthy can shuttle without ever witnessing the our world. An alternate architecture of convenience, laid atop our own. Beyond the improved quality of life, enough money even exempts you from being subject to the same laws that apply to the lower classes.
The stark, Manichaean terms in which McLean and others quoted in this Guardian piece put their opposition to Occupy makes sense in the context of what’s at stake. After all, if the wealthy lifestyle weren’t so sweet, why would so many people throughout history have tried to get rich? For capitalism’s systems managers like McLean, a movement that criticizes the wealth divide threatens the foundation of this entire cushy existence. Agitating for even a liberal form of economic justice is “the antithesis of everything” they believe—it contravenes, by McLean’s own admission, their entire moral universe.
Creating a totalizing moral order like this doesn’t require a “conspiracy theory,” or even conscious design, merely the natural functioning of systems. No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, and no one wants to believe that they reap extraordinary benefits from an unequal system. Exploitation exists because there’s a process of socialization that normalizes it and renders it acceptable. Patrick Higgins explains the simple process that creates an ideological system:
Put simply, mainstream and establishment are those centers of power where ruling ideology is produced; ideology are those thoughts, moods, ideas that the ruling class would like its subjects to adopt. In what bodies should the general public place its faith? What kind of things should it fear? What shall it consider ‘strange’ and ‘normal?’ What shall it find either attractive or repulsive? The answers to these questions, and more, constitute the ruling ideology, which becomes reproduced when subjects–members of the general public–adopt the answers for themselves and exchange them with each other in ways both large and small in the course of everyday life.
Who is the ruling class? This is simply another way of asking which people and organizations produce ideology. For society at large, it’s the state (politicians and the police forces they marshal), the banks (those with the power to print money), and oligarchs, by which I mean the richest mother fuckers on this planet. Since the ruling class produces notions of desirability, it defines belonging, or at least the sense of belonging.
Dr. Martin Luther King, who called economic exploitation one of society’s “three evils,” called upon people to resist systems that normalized immorality. King called for “creative maladjustment” to social norms that legitimized exploitation, resistance to widely held standards of decency rather than compliance.
It takes active “creative maladjustment” to avoid being inculcated with establishment values, and most people aren’t oriented to be so contrarian. For someone like McLean, whose “occupation has been, in some fashion, Wall Street” for 20 years, it’s a culture of working with, socializing with, fucking, and getting paid by people who validate a set of ideas about how the world should be run and where capital should flow.
The court now calls upon Alan Moore. Mr. Moore, is there anything that would prevent you from serving on this jury in a fair and impartial manner?
“I like to think of myself as fair,” Alan Moore, who said his wife worked on Wall Street as a bond strategist for Credit Suisse, told the judge. “But in terms of Occupy Wall Street in general, I would give less credibility to that group than average…They seem to be people moving a little outside regular social norms and regular behavior. Therefore I don’t give them the same level of respect as people who follow the line.” [Emphasis added]
Moore places the entire class of people who resist capitalist exploitation beneath trust. Those worthy of credibility and respect are those who comport with social norms, esteemed people who follow the line. What kind of world has society’s norms enabled, what has following the line gotten us?
In 2014, Oxfam reported that the world’s 85 richest people have more wealth than the poorer half of the world. The wealthiest 1% has 65 times as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. Though Yih, McLean, and Moore might think it’s due to these plutocrats working harder than half of humanity combined, Oxfam claims that “growing inequality has been driven by a ‘power grab’ by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favor.”
“That’s right, it’s war — class war. And guess who won?” writes Chris Floyd. “[W]e are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they’ve imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished—and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and ‘specialist suites,’ where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they’ve left behind.”
Like any war, this class war has empowered victors who call for a populace to remain docile for their conquerors. Like war, the moral order is inverted, with acquiescence to exploitation labeled moral, and agitation for justice defined as immoral. Like any victors, our elites live in their own distinct world of privilege and plenty, and dictate that the system ensuring their continued enrichment be defined as just. Those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of this system “seem to be people moving a little outside regular social norms and regular behavior,” as Moore so accurately put it. If this present state of affairs is going to change, it will involve people refusing to “follow the line” that people like our elites draw in the sand.
One of our best writers on the politics of contemporary America, Arthur Silber, quotes Hannah Arendt answering the question “in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate?” Arendt places her hopes with those who don’t “follow the line”:
All our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another.
The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds.