The iconic image of the Obama era? It’s not Shepard Fairey’s stylized, static, red-and-blue visage of Obama himself. It’s the do-it-yourself digital portraiture of the young but aging generation that mourned Steve Jobs and affiliates with Occupy Wall Street.
Their pictures fall into two types, both heavy on symbolism: carefully composed Facebook profile photos and slightly delayed, half-blurry cell phone shots.
The first is an expression of everything introverted, over-thought, self-referential, and inwardly insecure about the present moment. The second captures just the opposite — all that’s characteristically extroverted, improvised, other-obsessed, and outwardly insecure in our time.
Anyone weary of experiencing both these states of being had to be impressed with — if not bewitched by — the way Steve Jobs fused his personal and professional personae into an orb of equilibrium between them.
His products didn’t simply deliver access to beautiful and magical devices — they promised that the beauty and the magic lay in their ability to center and order lives incessantly pulled, seemingly by necessity, into life’s exhausting ping-pong game. With a sweep of the fingers, private anxieties and public pathologies could both attentively be transcended.
If Jobs’s death was indeed a where-were-you moment, surely the most ironic reply — and the best fitting to the moment — was “at Occupy Wall Street.” There, Jobs was more revered than respected, because to the archetypical Occupier, Jobs could only be a hero, never a role model. For the debt-laden postgraduate without prospects, Jobs’s geek-Romantic creed — half Siddhartha, half Legend of Zelda — is simply too late.
It’s not (just) that Jobs dramatically downplayed the selfishness and sacrifice required to self-actualize like he did. It’s that he didn’t give the intellectual time of day to the formerly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who had lost their pivotal formative years in a scrim of opportunity costs. What would he have to say to them? “It’s never too late to become the person you once might have been?”
That’s a line from a different prayer book. The Book of Jobs reads Fear not isolation, ye of natural merit, for thy merit shall deliver thee. The credo of Occupy Wall Street — in the absence of a manifesto — seems to be the opposite: If ye seek deliverance from your isolation, come as you are. The togetherness is the thing — it is a public act of hope that if you get the togetherness right, the rest will follow.
In that, Occupy Wall Street and its nationwide franchises recall the mob demonstrations of the twentieth century’s typical “social movements.” Whereas the “fierce urgency of now” invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr. (and cited freely by president Obama) drives people into the streets because of what can be done immediately, today, as is painfully evident, the aging youth of America hit the boulevard because of what cannot be done now.
There are endless things they can’t do now. They can’t pay their debts. They can’t secure credit. They can’t get work in their field of knowledge. They can’t get work, period, when confronted with the prevailing corporate attitude toward gaps in employment history and other irregularities of resume. They can’t force political change. They can’t change the world. They can’t stop the world from changing.
They can’t join a union. They can’t go on strike. They can’t join the army. They can’t, like the incapables of early Nazi Germany, pick up a spade, put on a uniform, and march in formation. They can’t form a soviet.
What they can do is get together — all mob and no lynch, idealists without a cause. And so this is what they did.
The most awkward consequence of this logic is a return to the challenges Steve Jobs had zenned away. The road away from politics leads to Cupertino. The road to Wall Street leads to a daunting question: Is this politics or not?
What goodwill has been extended to Occupy Wall Street stems from its very ambivalence about the whole political enterprise. Liberals like that it’s not tarring Obama as a corporatist (as Rage Against the Machine did with Gore in 2000). Moderates like that the crowds are too cool for labels. Libertarians like that they’re against a broken political system. Even some conservatives appreciate that they’re against broken capital markets.
If this is politics, who needs a political agenda?
But the inability of Occupy Wall Street not to slide (or be pushed) toward political violence should remind us that we do need a political agenda.
All the hallmarks of the age — the inward, hyperpersonal anxieties; the outward, hypersocial feverishness; the feeling of betrayal and hopelessness among the educated unemployed; the despair over the limits of the now; the confused, nonpartisan hostility against the status quo for its inability to safely and indefinitely perpetuate itself — these manifest the extraordinary difficulty in making long-term plans that becomes part of the culture in a well-developed democracy.
The collapse of hierarchical, “aristocratic” social boundaries, and of “polite,” horizontal bourgeois boundaries of propriety and shame, leads paradoxically to a sky’s-the-limit culture for the Steve Jobses of the world on the one hand, and, on the other, a hard-to-articulate sense of paralysis — not for the least among us, as liberal theorist John Rawls feared, but for many of the ordinarily unexceptional and obscure.
Try as it might, Washington makes matters worse. Despite our endless partisan paeans to our children and grandchildren, so much of what government does — from bailouts to lotteries, from electronic food stamps to perpetual regulatory uncertainty — takes on the cast of an impediment to the independent formulation and pursuit of long-term plans. Government does “have a role to play,” as they say, in encouraging our long-term planning — but it’s in undoing policy, not layering it on.
To our frustration, even this undoing takes time. It can’t all be done now. So rather than working to reform our various “systems,” we long for the instant of luck or randomness that will allow us to escape them completely, up and away to a hyperborean layer — one with a far lower barrier to entry than iHeaven.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.