Friday 27 January at 12:30 at the Santo Domingo Convent in Cartagena, Morris Berman, Daniel Alarcón, and Francisco Goldman held a panel discussion moderated by Jon Gower on the Occupy Movements.
Morris Berman is an American cultural historian and a social critic. He has written a number of books on the state of Western civilization. His latest book is Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011). He currently lives in Mexico.
Peruvian-born writer and journalist Daniel Alarcón has lived in the United States since the age of three. He is currently based in Oakland, CA and is a visiting scholar at University of California Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.
American novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman is the son of a Guatemalan Catholic mother and a Jewish American father. He is currently the Allan K. Smith Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He splits his time between Mexico City and New York City.
Welsh writer Jon Gower, known for his lyrical prose, was assigned the task of facilitating a discussion on the occupy movements by these three rather disparate novelists and academics. Gower launched the discussion by suggesting that the American Dream could be redubbed the American Hustle, and inviting the panelists to comment.
Morris Berman says that he is not at all surprised by the emergence of the occupy movements. He says that his books predicted these protests. So great is his aplomb that one might think that he was the architect behind these movements. Although Berman views the tendency toward grassroots protest with satisfaction, he expresses concern over the vagueness of the movements' goals. "The movements have energy," he says, "but they lack analysis." That analysis, he considers, is necessary in the process of bringing about real change. He sees the role of the occupy movements as a form of permanent education: holding a mirror up to society, but he feels that, as things stand, they are unlikely to bring about change.
In Oakland, California where Daniel Alarcón lives, the protests turned into riots. He says that Oakland is a culturally diverse and economically depressed city, and suggests that these circumstances made it more susceptible to violence. "The movement didn't begin as a riot," he clarifies, "but it turned violent." Alarcón is optimistic about grassroots movements as an engine for change. "All change will come from culture; there is no hope for change via politics," he says.
Francisco Goldman says that the recent years have been eye-opening in terms of public awareness of the US's economic disparity. The occupy slogan "We are the 99%," referring to the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the population, struck a chord with many people. He considers the movements to be the unmasking of the myth of America as the land of opportunity, justice and social mobility.
Berman adds to this thought, saying that socialism never got a chance in the United States because people have unshakable faith in the notion of social mobility. He says that the economic underclasses tend to consider poverty as "a temporary embarrassment" from which they are soon to emerge. Berman considers that this belief in the possibility of social advancement is largely delusional and states that the statistics indicate that most people will stay in the social class into which they are born. Berman refers to the belief that it is possible to improve one's lot in life as "the great snow job," and says that the belief in social mobility has become so deeply ingrained in the population that it is not even questioned.
Alarcón comments that rising tuition costs for universities indicates that schools are not a government priority and is indicative of a general lack of social funding.
Goldman does not believe that it will ever be possible for the United States to once again have a prosperous working class. He considers that the education situation is an apt metaphor for all of the US's problems: "The problem with the United States is an ignorant, uniformed people," he says.
Jon Gower asks the panelists if they feel that this situation is limited to the United States or whether there is general discontent worldwide.
Berman says that he believes that world protests are connected. He refers to world systems analysis, a neo-Marxist methodology for social analysis, and claims that "the arc of capitalism is 600 years long and now we are witnessing the breakdown of capitalism." Whether the system can be corrected or will have to "disintegrate," Berman says that he expects that a major crash is coming. In terms of what will come next, Berman says that "as the system breaks up it will become more decentralized and sustainable, with less imperial control." He cites the US secessionist movements as an example that this process is already under way. Berman sees this as a positive thing, and as evidence that capitalism doesn't work anymore.
The panel fell short on the goal of discussing the concerns, aims and prospects of the occupy movements. Admittedly it is a huge topic, with many different facets, but the discussion failed to provide much of a comprehensive overview. Alarcón and Goldman had some pertinent observations. Berman made some interesting points but he was more interested in flogging his own theories and making sweeping predictions, despite his insistence that everything he said would be based on facts and statistics, and his condescending dismissal of the members of the audience who challenged his affirmations and auguries during the question period at the end of the session.
I couldn't help but remember Gary Shteyngart and David Aaronovitch bantering at last year's Hay Festival and wondering out loud, "Who comes up with these conference topics and decides who will be on the panels?" I wonder too. It occurs to me that anti-conspiracy theorist David Aaronovitch would have made a lively debate opponent for Berman.
Friday 27 January at 17:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Morris Berman was scheduled to speak on the social and economic situation in the United States today.
Having had a taste of some of his controversial theories earlier in the day, I was looking forward to hearing Berman expand on his ideas and the possibility of some juicy debate.
Berman arrived late, strode to the platform, pulled a sheaf of papers from his valise and proceeded to rattle off at full speed, in Gringo Spanish, an essay summarizing his recent works. As he droned on, his less-than-impeccable accent got noticeably worse to the point of being unintelligible. Several people walked out of the venue. I held out, hoping that the question period would be more dynamic. After what seemed like an eternity, Berman finished his reading, announced that he would not take any questions from the public, got up and left.